Nasrin Sotoudeh is a lawyer and a human rights defender from Iran who has been defending opposition activists and political prisoners in the country for twenty years, oftentimes putting her own freedom and well-being at risk. Nasrin’s family has also paid a great personal cost for her fearless work, and the attorney herself has been imprisoned multiple times, including in solitary confinement. Since 2018, she has faced nine charges and has been sentenced to a combined 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. In spite of everything, this committed, brave, and compassionate woman remains unwavering in her quest to bring peace and justice to the people of Iran – and to do it by the letter of the law.
Nasrin Sotoudeh was born in 1963 in Langarud, Iran, and received a high-quality education. “The school I attended was a superb national girls’ school. Most of our teachers were actually university professors who didn’t just teach us Chemistry, Physics, Math, and so forth, but shared really deep life lessons and provided a foundation for ethical education as well,” explains Nasrin.
When the Islamic Revolution hit, she was only sixteen. Like everyone in the country, Nasrin and her friends were preoccupied with the social and political issues brought about by the advent of the revolution. Sadly, their worst fears turned out to be true. “As we were taking our final exams, the conversation about compulsory hijab was intensifying, and we were all quite worried. I was in the schoolyard when one of the girls came in and said, ‘It’s over. From next year, all the teachers have to wear mandatory veils.’ I distinctly remember that scene,” says Nasrin. That memory remains one of the most painful moments of her life to this day. “I remember asking myself, ‘When will we be able to come out from under this pressure?’”
After getting her university degree, Nasrin worked in a journal called A Gate to Dialogue, and through that became familiar with a circle of women activists in Iran – people like Parvaneh Forouhar, Shirin Ebadi, Mehrangiz Kar, and many others. “Most of the articles that I wrote at the time dealt with some current events, such as what came to be known as the ‘chain murders’ cases (a series of government-sanctioned killings of dissident Iranian intellectuals in 1988–1998). As part of that, I would interview legal luminaries,” says Nasrin. Their stories inspired her to do even more, and she decided to switch careers. In 2003, Nasrin Sotoudeh received her license and started working as a lawyer.
“The transition for me wasn’t sudden. It didn’t happen overnight. The questions of women’s rights, children’s rights, the rights of political prisoners, the judicial process, trials, procedure – all of these were questions that I have experienced fairly closely,” notes Nasrin. “I thought and believed that once I entered the legal profession as a lawyer, I would be able to make a difference in the very core of society by assuming my share of that responsibility.”
In her new role, Nasrin quickly became the voice of those caught in the merciless grip of Iranian legal system, whose purpose, it seems, is focused not so much on delivering justice as on punishing those seen as a threat to the state and on sending a dire warning to opposition activists who may stray too far from the official course. Driven by her acute sense of compassion, Mrs. Sotoudeh defended prisoners of conscience, women’s rights activists, and representatives of ethnic and religious minorities like Baha’is and Kurds. “All of this constant, pulsating injustice really troubled and bothered me,” says the attorney.
Charges of “spreading propaganda against the system and conspiring to act against national security” have often been thrown at her clients, and it didn’t take long before Mrs. Sotoudeh was facing accusations of a similar sort. In 2010, she was put in the infamous Evin prison where she was subjected to solitary confinement. This unjust imprisonment took her away from her husband, Reza Khandan, and their two young children, who were also banned from coming to visit her for a very long time. Worried that the prison conditions would drain her of love and kindness, Nasrin frequently wrote letters to her family, assuring them of her affection and reliving happy memories. At the same time, she went on a hunger strike to protest this inhumane treatment.
Jailing regime opponents to scare them into giving up is nothing new. This tactic is used by many oppressive governments, but its efficiency depends entirely on the reaction of the persecuted. In this case, it has backfired. Navigating this painful experience has made Nasrin Sotoudeh only more determined to continue her fight. “When I was in solitary confinement, I was going over the cases that I had taken, and I realized that, in fact, I had made a difference, either in terms of exonerating my clients or in terms of reducing the length of their sentences. In another sense, it’s quite good not to know how much difference you’ve made, because that spurs you on to try even harder, to make more of a difference,” notes the activist. In 2013, after a worldwide outcry, she was finally released.
Nasrin has had her share of bitter disappointments stemming from the reality of facing a system that is rigged against her. During one trial where she was defending Shirin Ebadi, she got so frustrated with the unsubstantiated claims of the opposing counsel that she walked out of the court. “Human rights lawyers are always asking themselves, ‘What’s the point of the law when the court itself breaks the law so flagrantly? What’s the point of even appearing in court, especially in Iran’s Revolutionary Courts, where the rulings are quite often arbitrary and even discriminatory?’ Many lawyers would say, ‘We should boycott the courts. By attending them, we somehow grant them legitimacy.’ That, of course, is not my perspective. I want to defend my clients,” explains Nasrin. “We’ve had many instances where, despite their will, despite their own inclinations, the judges have been forced to grant rights that otherwise they would not. We have attained our goals. We have had triumphs. We have forced change even in these most difficult circumstances.”
However arduous her fight may be, hope, inspiration, and solace are found in the most unlikely sources. Nothing is ever in vain, believes Nasrin. “Democratic resistance and civil society values always do pay off in the long run. Governments and states can be dictatorial and autocratic, and they can have all kinds of armies, and weapons, and other things at their disposal, but we have seen even figures like Hitler collapse and fail because of humanity’s resistance and collective will. I draw strength from all these experiences.”
In 2018 and 2019, Nasrin Sotoudeh was tried again and sentenced in absentia for multiple “crimes” against the regime, including taking on the client known as the Girl of Revolution Street. In December 2017, that woman, whose name remains undisclosed, took off and waved her hijab while standing on one of the busiest streets in Tehran. This defiant act inspired a series of similar protests. Later, it was also reflected in the 2022 Mahsa Amini movement, named after a young woman who died under suspicious circumstances after being detained by the moral police for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly.
Nasrin defended the Girl of Revolution Street in court, which later led to her own conviction. Although her initial sentence was eventually shortened, she is still supposed to spend 10 years in prison. The activist served 3.5 years before being granted a medical furlough. Her hunger strikes had wreaked havoc on her health, especially her heart, and she had to undergo an angioplasty. She is currently at home with her family, but her freedom is still severely restricted. Her bank account and her husband’s bank account have been blocked by the authorities. Reza also has a 5-year prison sentence that can go into effect at any time. In addition, they are both forbidden from leaving the country. All of this and the threat of being called back to prison at any given moment are a heavy burden on the activist.
And yet, even in the face of darkness closing in, she is optimistic. One of the tidbits of good news she’s had recently is that her daughter Mehraveh, who had previously been banned from traveling abroad as a way of putting pressure on her activist mother, was finally able to leave Iran. In August 2023, she went to the Netherlands where she will study art. “See, our lives are not just a tale of woe and sorrow. There are still occasions for joy and celebration,” says Nasrin.
Does she have any second thoughts about her chosen path? “I never regretted it, and till this day, I love that. I love the fact that I make those decisions. When I work, I know that the beneficiaries of my work will not only be my own children, but really, it’s for all of the children,” explains the lawyer. “I think all of us know that the human condition is such that all the threads of our lives are entangled, connected to each other. The foundation for any work that one does is this awareness of the connected nature of humanity.”
Top photo supplied by the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights