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Nasrin Sotoudeh, the fearless Iranian human rights lawyer, was sentenced in March to a lengthy prison term, based on multiple charges, including propaganda against the state, advocating against the death sentence, membership in a human rights organization, appearing in public without the hijab, disturbing public order, and “encouraging corruption and prostitution.” Sotudeh was already serving a five year prison sentence probably for representing a group of women who, in protest against the forced wearing of the hijab, removed their head covering in public. In the lexica of the Iranian judiciary, removing your hijab in public is equivalent to advocating prostitution.

Sotudeh was sentenced in absentia, refusing to appear in court because she was denied a lawyer of her own choice. She was protesting a ruling requiring defendants in political cases to select their lawyers only from a list approved by the judiciary. Her refusal to appear in court probably suited the prosecutor and the judge who no doubt preferred not to face Sotudeh in court and hear her demolish their case against her.

The exact length of Sotudeh’ sentence remains unclear. She told her husband, Reza Khandan, that she had been sentenced to 34 years in prison and 148 lashes. The hardline judge, Mohammad Moghiseh, said on state-affiliated television that she had been sentenced to seven years. This in any case came on top of a five-year sentence issued to her in absentia by Judge Moghiseh in 2015, about which she learned only when arrested in June 2018, on the current spate of multiple charges.

The news of the court’s harsh sentence has resulted in an international uproar.  The European Union, the United States, human rights organizations and women activists condemned the sentence and called for Sotudeh’s release. President Emmanuel Macron of France pointedly invited Sotudeh to the G7’s Gender Equality Advisory Council.

Sotoudeh is well known for her advocacy for children’s rights, women’s rights, and human rights. She is a member of a group in Iran opposed to capital punishment. Her long opposition to obligatory hijab, her defense of political prisoners and minority rights are well known.  She was one of the founders in 2005 of the movement “The One Million Signature Campaign for Equality under the Law,” which aimed at collecting one million signatures to remove discriminatory laws against women.    

Sotudeh was arrested in 2010 and served three years in prison before being suddenly released, on the eve of President Hassan Rouhani’s trip to New York to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly session.  Her 2018 arrest, alongside the arrest of a number of other human rights lawyers, places Iran solidly among the handful of countries which arrest lawyers simply for defending those accused of political offenses.  

To add insult to injury, the United Nations announced on March 13 that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been appointed to a working group of the Commission on the Status of Women. The commission is charged with promoting women’s rights and equality. Perhaps the UN thought this a fitting reward for the Islamic Republic’s glorious record in the defense of women who advocate for women and their rights.

About the Author

Haleh Esfandiari

Haleh Esfandiari

Public Policy Fellow;
Former Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center
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