Skip to main content

Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh smiles at her home in Tehran, after being freed following three years in prison on Sept. 18, 2013.BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC is a barrister and director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. Irwin Cotler is international legal counsel to Nasrin Sotoudeh, chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and a former justice minister and attorney-general of Canada.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, the imprisoned Iranian lawyer who embodies the struggle for human rights and women’s equality in Iran, is facing a life-threatening situation after a nearly 50-day hunger strike on behalf of other political prisoners whose lives are at risk. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is distracting the world’s attention from a pandemic of impunity enjoyed by human-rights violators in so many nations. Recently, the Turkish lawyer Ebru Timtik died in custody after her own prolonged hunger strike protesting the abuse of law under the Erdogan regime, while lawyers in Belarus and elsewhere are taken into custody for defending protesters.

Ms. Sotoudeh was forced to end her hunger strike only after being hospitalized with heart complications and difficulty breathing. At the hospital, her family had to witness the 24-hour security team manhandle Ms. Sotoudeh in a wheelchair and intimidate medical personnel. A number of these guards later tested positive for COVID-19. Ms. Sotoudeh was returned to an isolated cell, in a prison suffering a coronavirus outbreak, without receiving the urgent heart-related medical procedure she required. Iranian doctors consider her transfer back to prison “a deliberate attempt to put her life in danger.”

Moreover, in yet another cruel and mocking assault on her rights, days ago, Ms. Sotoudeh was falsely advised that she was being sent to the hospital for urgent medical care, only to discover that she was being transferred to Qarchak prison, known in Iran as “the end of the world.”

UN experts called Ms. Sotoudeh’s return to prison “unfathomable,” adding that the “evidence suggests Ms. Sotoudeh’s imprisonment, both now and in the past, is state retaliation for her tireless work defending human rights.” Ms. Sotoudeh, now 57, is serving a virtual death sentence of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for this work, most recently for representing activists who participated in the movement against the compulsory hijab. The authorities have even gone after her family, arresting her 20-year-old daughter, Mehraveh, in August and her husband, Reza Khandan, in 2018, freezing her bank accounts earlier this year and subjecting the family to continuing harassment.

While Ms. Sotoudeh’s hunger strike was nothing short of heroic, it follows nearly three decades of pursuing justice for the oppressed within a system designed to oppress. She has represented women’s rights activists, children on death row, journalists, opposition leaders, religious minorities, public demonstrators, environmentalists and Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, among countless others. Her only crime is courageously advocating for the rights of others.

And she continues to do so in prison, having dedicated her hunger strike to other political prisoners whose appeals have been ignored for months. Many are entitled to release under Iranian law, but are instead held arbitrarily in facilities suffering from systemic overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and severe shortages of protective supplies.

Ms. Sotoudeh also recognized that the pandemic is only expediting the global assault on the rule of law, and those who would defend it in Iran. In 2018, Iran’s judiciary established a mandatory list of 20 state-approved lawyers to represent politically motivated cases in Tehran’s courts, despite there being more than 20,000 members of the Tehran Bar Association. Ms. Sotoudeh was among the first to protest, stating: "If the head of the judiciary can stop lawyers from practising, it’s time to say goodbye to the profession.” The new judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, was a member of the 1988 death squads that executed thousands of Iranian dissidents and later presided over Ms. Sotoudeh’s case. Rather than being held to account for his crimes, Mr. Raisi was rewarded by becoming attorney-general and now chief justice.

Since 2018, at least 10 human-rights lawyers have been arrested, charged or sentenced – a crackdown that is only escalating. Last month, human-rights lawyer Giti Pourfazel was imprisoned, after having represented political prisoners, including Ms. Sotoudeh herself. And since the start of the pandemic, authorities have invented new cases and added trumped-up charges to keep these peaceful activists in prison; a number of them have already contracted COVID-19. In August, 12 out of 17 prisoners in a single ward tested positive for COVID-19, including human-rights lawyer Amirsalar Davoudi. While rights are repressed, impunity has reigned.

In 2010, Ms. Sotoudeh was sentenced to 11 years for “acting against national security” and for membership in a human-rights group – invented charges, which are the badge of authoritarians. She was released in 2013, just days before the UN General Assembly, owing to international pressure. Another leading human-rights advocate, Narges Mohammadi, was similarly released this month after six years of sustained international advocacy.

Canada should build on the recent supportive statements from the European Union, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Emmanuel Macron of France and U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden calling for Ms. Sotoudeh’s release, and join its allies in confronting Iranian diplomats in a co-ordinated protest against the crackdown on Iranian human-rights defenders. Moreover, it is past time that Canada imposed Magnitsky sanctions on the Iranian architects of repression, including Mr. Raisi and the head of Evin Prison. Violators in the international arena must be named and shamed. Ms. Sotoudeh’s freedom must be demanded at every bilateral and multilateral opportunity. Otherwise, our silence will endorse the impunity that she is risking her life to challenge.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.