Nasrin Sotoudeh is an Iranian female attorney who recently went on a hunger strike. She was a member of the Defenders of the Human Rights Center and has close ties with the Noble Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. During her work as an attorney, she has represented many political, ideological individuals and juvenile defendants in danger of the death penalty. She was arrested for acting against national security and propaganda against the regime on September 4th 2010, and was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment and a 20 year ban from working as an attorney. Under appeal, this sentence was reduced to 10 years imprisonment and a 10-year ban from practicing law. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Nasrin Sotoudeh has not been allowed to contact her family by phone during the past 18 months and visits with her husband and children have been obstructed numerous times. Since October 17th, Sotoudeh has been on a hunger strike to protest the lack of contact with her family. However, not only have her demands not been met, she has been punished by being sent to solitary confinement in the 209 ward of Evin prison for 20 days. (1)
Previously in an interview with the website Jaras, Sotoudeh’s husband Reza Khandan described his wife’s condition: “During my wife’s time in prison, she has gone on hunger strikes a number of times and her body has seriously weakened. She has never regained her health and this strike is extremely dangerous for her health. I tried very hard to convince her to break this hunger strike but she refused stating that it was the last tool she has. Nasrin is a mother, and whoever you are, you would like to shout out your pains when they take you to the end of the line. Hunger strikes are like shouting for the prisoners who cannot have anything and they shout as a result of their pain. This present condition is inhumane.” (2)
Nasrin Sotoudeh is not the only imprisoned attorney in Iran. Currently, there are other attorneys who have been sentenced to jail alongside their defendants. Most of these attorneys are members of the Defenders of the Human Rights Center which is run by Shirin Ebadi. Abdolrahman Soltani is another attorney who has a long record of defending political prisoners. Generally, Soltani accepted the cases of the women’s rights activists, students’ rights activists and journalists for free, increasing the anger of the government. BBC reports that according to the website Kalameh, this outstanding attorney who was finally arrested in September 2011, had initially been sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment, exile to Borazjan and a 20-year ban from practicing law. Under appeal, his sentence was reduced to 13 years of imprisonment. According to Soltani’s daughter, although authorities have said that writing letters of apology and letters against other political opposition figures could reduce this sentence; her father has refused to do so. (3)
In order to indirectly put Soltani under pressure, the government detained his wife, Ma’soumeh Dehghan for several days. She was recently sentenced to a year of Tazir imprisonment, suspended for five years, and she was banned from leaving the country for five years. In an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Soltani’s daughter said that she believed the reason behind her mother’s conviction was because she had accepted the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award on behalf of her husband. She stated: “I believe my mother’s detention was planned from day one. They wanted to fabricate a case on her, so that when they arrested my father, she would not be able to say anything. It is like she has a whip above her head and she is afraid to talk. Right now, although the sentence is suspended and would not be carried out, my mother’s heart is full of fear. She feels that if she does anything, they might implement the sentence at any moment. I believe this sentence to be a tool to scare and silence my mother.” (4)
Another attorney currently imprisoned in Evin prison is Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Dadkhah was the spokesman for the Defenders of the Human Rights Center. His long history in representing religious minorities and students in court made his law office a well-known destination for the victims of human rights violations. Many of his students are now attorneys as well. When Dadkhah was arrested after the 2009 elections, he became another victim of the government’s aim to suppress dissidents. He was sentenced to eight years imprisonment, a 10-year ban from teaching law, five lashes and a total of 300,000 Tomans in fines (USD 300). He had previously told Radio Farda that the Defenders of the Human Rights Center is following a path of “soft regime change” in Iran and is not an illegal organization as the center had been approved by the commission of Article 10 of Political Parties. This claim was later supported by a reporter from the Mehr news agency. (5)
Mohammad Seyfzadeh is another imprisoned attorney who was the founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center alongside Sotudeh, Soltani and Dadkhah. He also is currently imprisoned in Evin prison, in the 350 ward alongside a number of his clients and colleagues. His primary sentence of nine years of imprisonment and a 10-year ban from practicing law was reduced to two years under appeal. According to Shirin Ebadi, the Noble Peace Prize winner and head of the Center, the two year sentence is due to his participation in the establishment of the Defenders of the Human Rights Center. Ebadi states: “In other words, the crime of Mr. Seyfzadeh was to encourage the protection of the human rights in Iran.” In addition to calling this sentence illegal, Ebadi stressed the fact that the center had been founded legally with the approval of the Ministry of Interior. (6)
The legal perspective of the detention of the attorneys
The number of imprisoned attorneys is obviously not limited to the ones noted here. There are many others such as Ghasem Sholesadi, Shadi Sadr, Mohammad Mostafai, Mohammad Oliaifar and Khalil Bahramian. These attorneys have faced serious threats and limitations for practicing law after their release and some of them have even been forced to leave the country. The reason behind their arrests is usually their decision to represent political defendants or their membership in the Defendants of the Human Rights Center. Even though Articles 10 and 11 of the International Declaration of Human Rights guarantees a fair trial for every person, and one of the basics in a fair trial is the right to have an attorney. Obviously, in order to encourage a fair and impartial trial, the attorneys need to feel safe while representing the defendants. Many analysts believe the reason these attorneys have been arrested is because the government wants to scare off other attorneys so that no one will accept these kinds of cases.
Another reason that many have received these lengthy sentences is their role in the foundation or membership in the Defenders of the Human Rights Center. However, according to the 20th article of the International Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful organization. The same right has been recognized in the constitution of the Islamic Republic. Article 26 of the constitution states that membership and participation in political parties, assemblies, political gatherings, guilds and Islamic associations and religious minority associations are free and no one can be banned from membership or participation in these associations. The Defenders of the Human Rights Center was founded in 2002 with the aim of defending political-ideological prisoners, identifying obvious cases of human rights violations and supporting the families of the imprisoned political prisoners within the framework of Iranian law. (7)
Prior to his imprisonment, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah had told the center that under a lot of pressure he had been asked to claim in a television interview that the center has been receiving money from foreigners. “Meaning we work for foreigners, while it is not true. We were a number of attorneys that out of love of the country applied our knowledge and potential, and we worked. There were probably not very many people among Iranian attorneys who had equal dominance, knowledge and strength over the job or equal love for the country.” (8)
Protest of the human rights activists about the pressure on the attorneys
Human rights activists all around the world have tried to voice their concerns about the judicial and security treatment of the independent attorneys and their families. A simple search on the internet shows how many statements about the sentences of Sotoudeh, Soltani and his wife Dehghan, Dadkhah and Seyfadeh had been released by human rights organizations. Credible organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, a number of Noble Peace Prize laureates and other individuals have not been silent on this issue. However, the Iranian government has shown only indifference to the demands from the international community and human rights defenders and continues to clearly violate human rights. The aim of these actions is to prohibit the defense of political or ideological defendants with a legal language so that the government can continue with its policies. These attorneys have stood firm under very poor conditions and their strength gives confidence to those who were once their clients but are now fellow prisoners.
1. Report of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran on the conditions of Nasrin Sotoudeh: http://persian.iranhumanrights.org/1391/08/khandan_sotoudeh/
7. The official website of the Defenders of the Human Rights Center: http://www.humanrights-ir.org/