Nobel Laureate's Lawyer is Risking Her Life--Let's Save Her

November 8, 2010

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Update 11/9/10: See my important follow-up to this post here

We have been watching with horror as the Iranian government stomps on the bravest of the country’s human rights defenders—the lawyers who struggle mightily to do the best they can to represent their clients accused of politically motivated offenses in a hopelessly flawed legal system.

One of the very bravest of this dedicated group is Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was the attorney for Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, as well as other courageous human rights activists and juveniles sentenced to death. Now Nasrin Sotoudeh, a mother of two young children, is sitting in prison on her second hunger strike to protest her detention and this already slight lady is reportedly very frail.

We can’t afford to lose this incredible woman so I urge everyone to join me on a hunger strike to protest this gross injustice. I am not as courageous as Nasrin Sotoudeh but I will try to hold out as long as possible on liquids.  I urge anyone whose health permits it to go on a hunger strike for at least one day and tell everyone about it—put it on your Facebook page, add your name in the comments section to this blog posting—we need to stand up for Ms Sotoudeh and say to the Iranian government that enough is just enough.

Nasrin Sotoudeh has been detained since her arrest on 4 September. She is set to be tried on spurious charges on 15 November. The charges include “acting against national security” and “congregation and collusion with intent to disrupt national security” solely for her peaceful work representing her clients. She has been kept in solitary confinement, denied contact with her lawyer and has been allowed few family visits. Ms Sotoudeh has been on the second hunger strike since October 31.

The persecution of Nasrin Sotoudeh is just one example of the Iranian government’s pernicious campaign against its human rights attorneys. Several prominent human rights lawyers such as Shirin Ebadi, Shadi Sadr and Mohammad Mostafaei have been hounded into exile, while others such as Mohammad Seifzadeh have been sentenced to long prison terms; still others such as Abdolfattah Soltani await trial. The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provide that lawyers must be allowed to carry out their work “without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.” In addition, it affirms the right of lawyers to freedom of expression, also provided for in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes “the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Many defendants—especially those accused of politically motivated offenses—do not even know what they are charged with or what evidence exists against them. They have only limited access, if any, to their lawyers, and they are subjected to torture to extract confessions which can be used against them. Trials for people facing serious charges, including those punishable by the death penalty, .can last just a few short minutes. Individuals trapped in this system are in desperate need of expert and committed legal representation. Juvenile offenders sentenced to death meanwhile generally come from marginalized segments of the population and often have no one to turn to other than lawyers like Mohammad Mostafaei who has represented dozens of them in his career.

But the Iranian authorities are determined to relentlessly undermine the rule of law. In December 2008 the Iranian authorities forcibly closed the Center for Human Rights Defenders (CDHR), co-founded by Shirin Ebadi along four other lawyers and other rights activists.  The CHRD had unsuccessfully sought legal registration through the relevant channels at the Ministry of the Interior since its formation in 2001 but it has been continuously denied. As a result, Shirin Ebadi and her colleagues had to work in a legal limbo and under constant threat of closure and reprisals.

The persecution of human rights lawyers has increased further since the disputed June 2009 presidential election. Mohammad Oliyaeifard, a lawyer and board member of the Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners in Iran, a human rights organization, is serving a one-year prison sentence imposed for speaking out against the execution of one of his clients during interviews with international media.  His client, juvenile offender Behnoud Shojaee, had been hanged for a murder he committed when he was 17 years old. Mohammad Olyaeifard has defended many prisoners of conscience, including independent trade unionists, as well as juvenile offenders.  His own lawyer is Nasrin Sotoudeh. On 30 October, Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced prominent lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh to nine years in prison and a ten year ban from practicing law. Mr. Seifzadeh was charged with “forming an association … whose aim is to harm national security” and “being a member of an association whose aim is to harm national security” for having participated in the establishment of the CHRD.

Iran’s human rights lawyers make enormous sacrifices in order to guarantee their clients some hope of obtaining justice. Please make a small sacrifice of your own to show your solidarity with Nasrin Sotoudeh. Please write a letter to the Iranian government or if you are able, please go on a hunger strike as well—if only for a short period of time. Every effort we make to save Nasrin Sotoudeh will remind the Iranian government that the world is watching and we will not stop protesting until Nasrin Sotoudeh is released from prison.