“I was released, but I was not freed.”
Iran may be one of the world’s most dangerous places to be an activist, and no one knows that better than Nasrin Sotoudeh. The country’s most prominent human rights defender has spent her life speaking truth to power, at enormous personal cost. A 2010 conviction of “conspiring against state security” put her in prison for three years, most of them in solitary confinement, and she endured two life-threatening protest hunger strikes. Last June, Nasrin, 55, was again pulled abruptly from her home, told she’d been convicted in absentia of national security offences, and returned to jail. Amnesty International called the arrest “an outrage.”
Raised in a middle-class Tehran family, Nasrin came to activism young. She first worked as a journalist for reformist newspapers; in 2003, when she received her law license, she joined the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, which offered pro bono representation to political prisoners, and the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Children. She defended children held on death row – although it’s illegal under international law to execute those under 18, some 73 children have been put to death in Iran between 2005 and 2015 – and actively campaigned against the death penalty.
Nasrin also was a signatory to the Campaign for One Million Signatures, which called for the elimination of laws discriminating against women, and defended many of its members when they were arrested. She stood up as well for those arrested in a state crackdown after Iran’s disputed 2009 election that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power (electoral irregularities brought millions of Iranians out in protest).
Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi called Nasrin “the lawyer so many of us human rights defenders would call when the government harassed us or put one of us or one of our family members in jail.”
International organizations celebrated Nasrin’s human rights work, awarding her thePEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. But at home, government harassment never stopped. The suffering has touched her entire family. In 1994, she’d married Reza Khandan, a graphic artist she’s described as “truly a modern man,” and they had two children. With her arrest in 2008, authorities imposed a travel ban on her daughter, then 12, and she and Nasrin’s toddler son were allowed to see their mother only from behind a glass screen. When Nasrin refused to wear a required full-length chador, the visits were cut off entirely.
Just as much as you need “parents, love and visits with your mom,” an opposition website reported she wrote to her children, “you need freedom, social security, the rule of law and justice.”
In 2013, Nasrin was released early by newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani as a show of good faith to the international community. Forbidden to practice law, Nasrin continued to speak out, saying “I was released, but I was not freed.” In February, 2018, a group of Tehran women removed their hijabs in street protest and were charged with “violating public prudency” and “encouraging immorality of prostitution”. Nasrin stepped in to defend what she called “a civil-disobedience movement.”
Her latest arrest came not long after she announced plans for a sit-in in protest of a new government rule to restrict the right of dissidents to hire independent lawyers – what she called a “farewell” to the right of defence. Last August, denied an official response to her correspondence and hearing of the harassment of her family and friends, she began yet another hunger strike. “I have no choice,” she wrote on her husband’s Facebook page. A month later, Reza was arrested as well.
Despite global condemnation and calls for the couple’s release both Reza and Nasrin remain in jail. Yet it’s clear that while Nasrin may be imprisoned, she will not be silenced. In late September, the Center for Human Rights in Iran published Nasrin’s letter to her now 12-year-old son, explaining why she couldn’t be with him for the first day of school:
“How could I witness the execution of juveniles in my country and be silent?” she asked. “How could I close my eyes to child abuse cases?...I just couldn’t, my son.”