Nasrin Sotoudeh: Defending Iran's Dissidents

Snapshot of activism:

Nasrin Sotoudeh is one of Iran's most prominent human rights lawyers, whose political imprisonment has repeatedly drawn international attention. Over the course of her career, she has earned a reputation for taking on politically sensitive cases, working closely with Shirin Ebadi's Defenders of Human Rights Center and the Iranian women's movement's One Million Signatures campaign. As one of the last lawyers willing to defend Iranian dissidents and civic activists after the disputed 2009 presidential election, Sotoudeh was herself arrested in 2010. In January 2011, Iran's judiciary sentenced her to 11 years imprisonment and banned her from practicing law for 20 years after convicting her of charges such as "spreading propaganda against the system" and "belonging to an illegal organization." That September, an appeals court reduced the sentences to 6 years imprisonment and 10 years' banishment from the legal profession.[1] She was released from Evin Prison, along with ten other political prisoners, in September 2013.


Nasrin Sotoudeh was born in Tehran on May 30, 1963. One of four children, Sotoudeh’s upbringing was middle-class; her mother was a homemaker and her father a businessman.[2] She later married computer engineer Reza Khandan, with whom she has two children, daughter Mehraveh and son Nima.[3] She began working on civic issues by helping launch the publication Daricheh Goftegoo (Hatchway to Conversation) in 1991, becoming its only female writer and meeting her future husband while working there.

Sotoudeh graduated with a Master's degree in international law from Shahid Beheshti University in 1989 and passed the bar in 1995. Like fellow lawyer and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, however, Sotoudeh was forced to wait eight years for a license to practice law.[4] In the meantime, she worked as a journalist for reformist periodicals, including Jame'eh (Society), Toos, Sobh-e Emrooz (This Morning), Abaan (November), Nameh (The Letter), and Jomhouriat (The Republic). It was, by Iranian standards, a good time to practice the profession; the reformist administration of President Khatami saw a flourishing of the reformist press and civil society, although a conservative crackdown would severely curtail them shortly thereafter. Sotoudeh published articles dealing with the nature of political crimes, women's rights, children's rights, and Iran's infamous serial killings, in which a string of dissidents and intellectuals were allegedly murdered by elements of the Ministry of Intelligence.[5]

Sotoudeh finally obtained her license to practice law in 2003, and from that point, she actively took part in organizations such as the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC) and the Society for the Rights of Children. The DHRC, co-founded by Shirin Ebadi and four other attorneys, is dedicated to pro bono defense of prisoners of conscience, support to their families, reporting on the human rights situation in Iran, and public education.[6] Sotoudeh played an important role in these activities. As a member of the One Million Signatures Campaign for the Repeal of Discriminatory Laws, which sought to overturn the unequal status of women in Iran's legal code, she provided legal representation for many of its prominent members after they were arrested.[7] Sotoudeh’s other clients have included journalists such as Isa Saharkhiz, student activists like Atefeh Nabavi, opposition leader Heshmat Tabarzadi, and even Shirin Ebadi herself.[8] She has also represented activists working on behalf of Iran's marginalized Kurdish community, including Roya Toloui and Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand.[9] In June 2008, Sotoudeh herself was arrested before a gathering being held for the National Day of Solidarity of Iranian Women, after which she stood trial for disturbing the peace in February 2009.[10]                                                  


While her actions since 2009 have earned her international recognition as a leader of the Iranian women's movement, Sotoudeh has focused on women's rights from the start of her career.  In honor of International Women's Day in 1991, Sotoudeh prepared a set of articles written by Iranian female attorneys and activists Shirin Ebadi and Mehrangiz Kar. She also conducted interviews with Noushafarin Ansari and Parvaneh Eskandari. Ms. Eskandari (one of Iran's leading female dissidents) and her husband were later victims of Iran’s serial killings. Although Daricheh Goftegoo was already taking on topics taboo under the Islamic Republic, the publication's editor-in-chief refused to run these pieces.[11]

As Sotoudeh went on writing for the reformist press that emerged after 1997, the subjects of her publications continued to focus on women's rights and children's rights. Abaan magazine ran "International Women's Day and Iranian Law" in 1999 and "Who Is Responsible for Children's Rights?" in 2004, while Nameh ran "Women's Rights Before and After the Revolution" in 2004. Writing to her daughter in 2011, Sotoudeh explained her convictions in defending the rights of children in particular: “You demanded that we respect your rights as a child and I am so glad you did, for at times neglect can lead us to disregard another person’s rights, even if the other individual happens to be our own child. Through the eyes and the words of a child you reminded us adults, who saw ourselves as your protector, of the importance of having respect for the rights of others, demanding one’s rights, justice, a legal framework, equality and other such important matters.”[12]


Sotoudeh's work on behalf of political prisoners, and her advocacy for women's and children's rights, first earned her international accolades on December 6, 2008, when the Italian NGO Human Rights International (HRI) chose her as the inaugural recipient of its organizational award. The group, which awarded her the prize in collaboration with Sotoudeh's longtime colleague Shirin Ebadi, was forced to present it to her husband and daughter instead. When Sotoudeh had tried to leave Iran for the ceremony in Italy, the Iranian authorities stopped her at the airport and confiscated her passport.[13]

Sotoudeh was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award at the PEN American Center's Literary Gala in New York on April 28, 2011, at a ceremony attended by writers such as Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Since 1987, the Freedom to Write Award has "honor[ed] international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression." She was the third Iranian to win this award, following Shahla Lahiji in 2001 and Nasser Zarafshan in 2004.[14] With Sotoudeh in prison and unable to attend, Shirin Ebadi accepted the award on her behalf. In the same year, the Geneva Institute for Democracy and Development awarded her its Giuseppe Motta medal. Recipients of the Motta medal are recognized for “exceptional achievement in the promotion of peace and democracy, human rights, and sustainable development.”[15]

In October 26, 2012, Sotoudeh and filmmaker Jafar Panahi were jointly awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. The Sakharov Prize is the European Parliament's most prestigious human rights award, and previous winners include Aung Saan Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela.[16] In announcing the 2012 winners, President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz described the prize as "a message of solidarity and recognition to a woman and a man who have not been bowed by fear and intimidation and who have decided to put the fate of their country before their own."[17] The award came at a difficult time for her; Sotoudeh had started a hunger strike in prison ten days before, in response to the Iranian government banning her 12-year-old daughter from travelling.[18] As with her HRI award and the PEN Gala, the imprisoned lawyer was unable accept her prize in person. Although President Schulz stated that he "sincerely hoped they would be able to come in person in Strasbourg to the European Parliament to collect their prize," an E.U. delegation was not even permitted to visit Panahi and Sotoudeh in Iran. The Iranian government had their trip cancelled instead.[19]

Sotoudeh’s case has become one of Iran's most prominent political prisoners, and both her accomplishments and her hardship have drawn international attention. In November 2012, the U.S. State Department issued a statement calling on the Iranian government to release Sotoudeh, along with 30 other female political prisoners being held in Evin prison. Leading diplomats, from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to British Foreign Secretary William Hague, have repeated that call.[20] Non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International and the Nobel Women's Initiative have also closely followed Sotoudeh's case.[21] In June 2013, York University in Canada awarded her an honorary doctorate in law. In an acceptance speech written from Evin Prison and read by Karim Lahidji, president of FIDH (the International Federation for Human Rights), she wrote: "Women, men, children and old people, regardless of color, race, gender, language, ethnicity and religious belief have the right to enjoy their human rights. They have a right to immunity from illegal prosecution; they have a right to fair trial, to have access to lawyers, who would continue to defend their clients, without fearing persistent intimidation and threats." Outside of these international institutions, Sotoudeh also has a large following on social media; one of her Facebook pages had over 121,000 likes as of April 2014.[22]

Where is she now?

Nasrin Sotoudeh’s 2010 arrest and subsequent imprisonment, like that of many other Iranian dissidents and activists, largely stemmed from her involvement in Iran's disputed presidential election in 2009. At that time, Sotoudeh had actively campaigned for women's issues, helping form the Coalition for Women's Rights movement and conveying women's electoral demands to the four candidates.[23] After the election results were announced and protests began, she gave support to the "Green Coalition for Women's Rights" movement. In an increasingly repressive environment, where protestors were beaten by pro-regime militias and Iran's foremost reformists, opposition leaders, and journalists were jailed, Sotoudeh continued to represent clients in cases that ran afoul of Iran's hardliners. These included many of those prominent opposition figures, including journalist and Khatami-era press official Isa Saharkhiz and Nameh editor Kayvan Samimi.[24][25]

In the midst of post-election turmoil, Sotoudeh also represented Arash Rahmanipour, a 20-year-old who was accused of belonging to an outlawed monarchist organization and was executed in January 2010. Rahmanipour's treatment by the legal system outraged her, and even as his attorney, she was only permitted one 15-minute meeting with him before his death sentence and hanging. After speaking out against what she saw as injustice in his case, she reported in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that security forces had cut off her cell phone because she "kept contacts with counter-revolutionary media." The young man's execution, and the government's pressure on her for trying to defend him, took a toll. As she described it: "We, as defense lawyers [working on] human rights, are under so much pressure and [so many] restrictions, and the noose around us is tightening and we are insulted and threatened so much and verbally abused... what makes me feel helpless, desperate and bitter is that our attempt to help our clients is doomed and in vain."[26]

Sotoudeh's defense of the victims of the 2009 crackdown, her outspoken opposition to their treatment, and her longstanding work with Shirin Ebadi and other human rights lawyers made her a target of the judiciary. In September 2010, after having her offices raided by security forces and being called to Evin Prison for "interviews", she was arrested and brought to trial on charges including "propaganda against the system" and "acting against national security."[27] In January 2011, the 26th Branch of Iran's Revolutionary Court sentenced her to 11 years in prison and banned her from practicing law for 20 years. In September 2011, an appeals court reduced those sentences to six years in prison and a 10-year ban on practicing law.[28] Even from prison, however, Sotoudeh's international renown allowed her to attract global attention to both her plight and that of her family. In the months between her arrest and her conviction, she repeatedly went on hunger strike to protest the prison's poor conditions, while her husband and her children were only allowed to see her rarely, if at all. Sotoudeh's husband, Reza Khandan, also became a target, being called before a different branch of the Revolutionary Court as a "defendant" on one occasion and detained and interrogated for 24 hours on another.[29]

The most widely-reported episode of her imprisonment took place between October and December 2012, when Sotoudeh embarked on a hunger strike to protest the Iranian government's decision to place a travel ban on her 12-year-old daughter Mehraveh. For the better part of two months, she refused all food and drank only water mixed with sugar and salt.[30] Sotoudeh finally ended the hunger strike when the travel ban was lifted. In a letter to her children, she explained to them why she was subjecting herself to these hardships on their behalf, even when her defiance led to their visits being cut off. Writing from Ward 209 in Evin, she wrote: "My dearest Mehraveh, I began reflecting upon your rights and that of your brother from the very first day I was arrested. Because of your age, I worried more about you. I worried about your ability to endure, your judgment of the situation, your morale, and most importantly I worried about the effect it [my arrest and incarceration] would have on your interactions with your peers at school. It wasn’t long, however, before all my doubts and concerns were put to rest, and I knew that I – or rather, we – were able to stand firm and true to our convictions."[31] As she made clear, her children were a large part of her motivation in fighting for the rights of Iran's downtrodden: "My dearest daughter, you were my main motivation for pursuing children’s rights. I thought then and still believe that all my efforts in the area of children’s rights will benefit no one more than my own children. Every time I came home from court, after having defended an abused child, I would hold you and your brother in my arms, finding it hard to let go of your embrace."[32] Ultimately, her hunger strike was a success; after 49 days, during which her weight had dropped to 95 pounds, the government lifted the travel ban.[33]

In 2013, Sotoudeh was allowed two brief furloughs from prison, followed by a temporary release. In January, after more than two years in detention, she was given three days' leave to be with her husband and children before having to return to Evin. Amnesty International, which has dedicated significant attention to her case, responded by welcoming the furlough but holding that she "shouldn't have been imprisoned in the first place."[34] In June 2013, she was allowed to leave again; this furlough was slated for four days, but Sotoudeh stayed out of prison for fourteen. This release was greeted warmly by both dissidents and reformists; renowned Iranian filmmaker and Sakharov Prize co-recipient Jafar Panahi, former Tehran University chancellor Mohammad Maleki, and even former President Mohammad Khatami came to visit her.[35] During his visit, Sotoudeh told Khatami: "We [dissidents] are all concerned for the country, and do not consider ourselves to be 'opponents.' However, we believe that different opinions must be allowed safe expression."[36] After two weeks and repeated requests for an extension, Sotoudeh was ultimately compelled to return to her cell at Evin. Reza Khandan described the family's feelings: "We thought the situation would change a little after the [2013 presidential] election, that they would go easier on political prisoners, and that they would stand by what they said... the kids and I were hopeful, and then we realized that she would not be released and must return."[37]

On Sept. 18, 2013, Nasrin Sotoudeh was temporarily released from prison[38], days before an address by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the United Nations[39]. Since then Sotoudeh has been active in civic gatherings; in this March 2014 speech, for instance, she calls Iran a “big prison” as she remembers her friends still inside “small prisons,” professes solidarity with religious minorities and celebrates the proud resistance of Iran's artists.[40] After this speech, Sotoudeh received a phone call ordering her to appear at the Intelligence Ministry; however, she refused. As of April 2014, she is still out of jail. 


Learn more

Nasrin Sotoudeh's Facebook page(in English)

Defenders of Human Rights Center Official Website(in English)

Tehran Bureau Biography of Nasrin Sotoudeh (in English)

Nasrin Sotoudeh's Wikipedia Page (in English)

Tavaana's Exclusive Case Study on the One Million Signatures Campaign (in English)

Nasrin Sotoudeh's Letter to Daughter Mehraveh(in English)

A Video Message from Nasrin Sotoudeh (in Persian)

Nasrin Sotoudeh's 2009 interview with NBC (in English)

PEN America on Nasrin Sotoudeh (in English)




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