By Savannah Green (CMC ’20)
Over the past few weeks, several countries have come to the support of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was arrested in Iran in June of 2018 for representing women accused of removing their hijabs in public. When Sotoudeh was arrested by Iranian authorities, she was given no explanation and was detained for eight months while awaiting her sentencing. On March 11, 2019, she was told of her conviction: seven charges for a total of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. In Iran, this is the harshest sentence recorded for a human rights defender in recent years. Further, Sotoudeh was one of at least seven human rights lawyers arrested in the country last year. Many leaders and activists around the world have spoken out against the harsh sentencing, but so far, nothing concrete has been done to free Sotoudeh.
Since late last year, protests surrounding headscarves have drastically increased in Iran. From December of 2018, to March of 2019, thirty women were arrested for removing their headscarves in public because, according to the government, removal encourages moral corruption. During a protest, women removed their headscarves and waved them above their heads like flags in an effort to make their voices heard. These women were all sentenced to two years in prison, though many plan to appeal the verdict and to continue fighting. These two-year sentence precedents help put Sotoudeh’s case into perspective. Many were shocked that the government would sentence anyone, especially a renowned human rights lawyer, to such a significant amount of time.
One of the main reasons the sentencing was so harsh was because Article 134 of Iran’s Penal Code was applied. This article allows the judge to give a higher sentence than the maximum, if there are greater than three charges being faced. Consequently, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh applied the required number of years for each of the seven charges plus an additional four years in prison. Contrarily, the office for the implementation of sentences in Evin Prison reports that she only received five years for colluding to commit crimes and two years for insulting the Supreme Leader. However, this report directly contradicts the information given to Sotoudeh’s husband from his phone call with his wife. (It is suspected that the record from the prison might be addressing just one of the seven charges, instead of the total sentencing.) This explains the differing counts from several reporters on the story. Regardless, the government is attempting to use Nasrin Sotoudeh to keep other human rights lawyers from pursuing their work.
This case has taken off internationally so rapidly because Sotoudeh has had an international impact ever since she won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012. This award is one of the most prestigious accolades given out by the European Union, and she was granted it while serving a previous prison term. Given this history, many are looking to the EU to force Iran to right the wrong sentence and grant Sotoudeh freedom. Antonio Tajani, the current President of the European Parliament, is using Twitter to voice his concerns with the situation. On March 12, he opposed the Iranian sentence, stating, “I strongly condemn utterly outrageous Iranian government sentence passed against #SakharovPrize laureate, Nasrin Sotoudeh. She’s dedicated her life to defending women’s rights and speaking out against the #deathpenalty. The @Europarl_EN stands with her.” These actions will no doubt call attention to the issue and ignite a resistance from other leaders across the world.
Sotoudeh’s case sets a dangerous precedent for other human rights lawyers and activists. Only time will tell whether this current outrage will explode into a political battle or remain muted by the government. Further, the coming weeks will reveal whether those statements of support from Tajani will generate a ripple effect or simply fizzle out. This sentencing might be exactly what human rights activists need to ignite their cause, but the magnitude can only be as strong as those who choose to openly speak out. In the end, the international community will need to step forward for Sotoudeh and other innocent human rights lawyers; justice for Nasrin Sotoudeh cannot lie only in the hands of the people of Iran, but instead be backed by international players who are not afraid to stick up for their values.