For her fearless activism, at great personal risk, to promote political freedoms and human rights in Iran.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is an Iranian lawyer advocating for the rule of law and the rights of political prisoners, opposition activists, women and children in the face of Iran’s repressive regime. She is currently serving a long prison sentence for standing up against the country’s draconian legal system. Despite her imprisonment and constant threats to her family, Sotoudeh remains a defiant advocate for the rule of law.
Sotoudeh rose to prominence in the aftermath of the 2009 anti-government protests, the so-called “Green Revolution,” following the country’s presidential elections. Sotoudeh defended several activists arrested during the government’s aggressive crackdown on the demonstrations, including Heshmat Tabarzadi, the head of the banned opposition group Democratic Front of Iran. Sotoudeh also represented Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi.
Because of her unrelenting commitment to justice, Sotoudeh has been frequently imprisoned, including in solitary confinement, since 2010. In March 2019, she was sentenced to a total of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes on made-up charges including stoking “corruption and prostitution.” During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Sotoudeh went on hunger strikes to protest the continued arbitrary detention of political prisoners amid abysmal conditions in Iranian prisons.
Nasrin Sotoudeh stood up against Iran’s repressive regime, providing legal representation to those persecuted by authorities. However, by demanding human rights, she became a threat to the Iranian government herself. As a result, she currently serves a lengthy prison sentence.
Sotoudeh’s insistence on the rule of law and unrelenting fight against oppression have made her a symbol of the struggle for justice in Iran.
Fighting for justice in an unjust system
Under Iran’s repressive regime, political freedoms and human rights are heavily curbed. Iranian authorities routinely use lethal force, torture and ill-treatment to crush dissent and crack down on any opposition. The death penalty is still in use. According to Amnesty International, Iran executed more than 250 people in 2019 alone, which is the second-highest number globally after China.
Because of its repressive regime, Iran is one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders, especially for women. Opposition activists such as reformist or secular politicians, journalists, students and lawyers are often subject to arbitrary arrests, maltreatment in prison and draconic sentences.
Sotoudeh has been a human rights lawyer since 2003 when she finally managed to obtain her lawyer’s license, having been blocked by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence for eight years after she passed her bar exam in 1995. Before obtaining her lawyer's licence, she worked as a journalist for reformist newspapers in Iran.
Sotoudeh has been a leading advocate in the struggle for the rule of law in Iran. Her work, along with that of others, centres on insisting that the Islamic Republic applies proper legal procedures to all citizens, including prisoners of conscience, and abides by its international commitments with regard to human rights and women’s equality. In this regard, Sotoudeh has criticised and campaigned against unfair trials by the Islamic Revolutionary Court, which is a special court system set up to prosecute opponents of the Islamic government. Its trials are held in secret.
Sotoudeh has been a leading voice of resistance against the silencing of political opposition, and the arbitrary persecution of human rights and women activists. She has notably represented Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, when her assets were seized in the aftermath of the 2009 elections. Ebadi has been in exile ever since. Ebadi has called Sotoudeh “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.”
Defending political activists and the vulnerable
While in most countries, the act of representing a defendant is the norm, in Iran, the simple act of standing in solidarity with those opposing the regime can lead to brutal retaliation. This makes Sotoudeh’s work of choosing to defend political activists and dissidents all the more courageous.
Sotoudeh became especially active after the crackdown of the protests following the 2009 presidential elections in Iran, the so-called “Green Revolution” movement. She defended many of the activists who were arrested during the demonstrations, including Heshmat Tabarzadi, the head of the banned opposition group Democratic Front of Iran.
She has also been a staunch advocate for the most vulnerable populations in Iran: women and children. She has actively participated in Iran’s women's rights movement, including the “One Million Signatures” campaign, which was started in 2006 aiming to change discriminatory laws. She also represented several women's rights activists in court. In 2018, a number of young women protested against compulsory hijab laws by taking off their headscarves on the street, known as the Girls of Revolution Street. They were arrested, beaten in custody and charged with “violating public prudency” and “encouraging the immorality of prostitution.” Sotoudeh called the women’s actions a “civil disobedience movement” and defended three of them in court.
Other notable activists Sotoudeh defended over the years include women’s rights activists Mansoureh Shojaee, Parvin Ardalan and Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh; journalists Morteza Kazemian, Issa Saharkhiz and Omid Memarian; student activist Zia Nabavi and artist Parastou Forouhar.
Sotoudeh has also been fighting against the death penalty, particularly in the case of children sentenced to death, which contravenes international human rights law. She defended a number of minors who had been sentenced to death for alleged murder before reaching the age of 18. She has organised out-of-court activities to save death row adolescents, several of which were successful. Sotoudeh is a member of the non-governmental organisation called “Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” (LEGAM). It was established in 2013, aiming to abolish the death penalty in stages with its activities mainly concentrated around changing the country’s death penalty laws.
Persecution and imprisonment
For her activism, Sotoudeh has often been the target of the Iranian authorities. She was first arrested in September 2010 and charged with “spreading propaganda against the State” and “collusion and gathering with the aim of acting against national security.” She was subsequently sentenced to 11 years in prison, with a further 20-year ban on practising law and a 20-year restriction on social rights and travelling abroad. The sentence was commuted on appeal to 6 years of imprisonment and a 10-year ban on practising her profession.
During her imprisonment, Sotoudeh was held for long periods in solitary confinement and often denied contact with her husband and young children. In protest against these inhumane conditions, she conducted several hunger strikes. Following her first imprisonment in 2010, the national and international outcry over the case resulted in her release in September 2013.
Beginning October 2014, she staged sit-ins for 9 months outside the Bar Association of Tehran in protest against the suspension of her lawyer’s licence. Eventually, she succeeded to have the suspension reduced to 9 months and thus lifted.
In June 2018, Sotoudeh was detained again after being notified of a court ruling, issued in absentia in 2016, sentencing her to 5 years of imprisonment for allegedly “acting against national security.” Shortly before her arrest, Sotoudeh had protested a decision by Iran's judiciary to allow only a pool of 20 preselected lawyers to represent political cases. Further charges were also added, including blatantly false and politicised ones such as endangering the country's security through assembly and "corruption and prostitution," most likely in response to her defence of the women protestors who had removed their headscarves.
In total, Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for these “crimes” in March 2019. According to a recent Iranian law, she will only serve the longest sentence for one of the convictions, which is still 12 years. Her sentence is being served in Evin Prison, one of the regime’s most notorious prisons for detaining political prisoners, where there has been widespread documentation of torture and human rights abuses.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Iran’s prison system was severely affected by the virus. Sotoudeh has subsequently conducted further hunger strikes during the pandemic, calling for the release of all political prisoners, decrying the abysmal conditions of detention of human rights defenders and political prisoners in the country, and condemning the multiple breaches to their right to a fair trial.
As she continues her fight even from behind bars, Sotoudeh remains a powerful symbol of hope for a more just and equitable society in Iran.