In March 2019, Iranian human rights activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Last month, she was committed to a hospital after more than 40 days on a hunger strike. Pictured: Sotoudeh with her son on September 18, 2013. (Photo by Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)
In March 2019, Iranian human rights activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Last month, she was committed to a hospital after more than 40 days on a hunger strike. She was held at a hospital for a few days, heavily guarded by Iranian security, then returned, despite a serious heart condition, to notorious Evin Prison, where she is serving her 38-year sentence. As she began her hunger strike, Sotoudeh wrote in a letter from Evin prison:
"In the midst of the coronavirus crisis engulfing Iran and the world, the situation facing political prisoners has become so difficult that their continued incarceration under these tyrannical conditions has become impossible.
"Political [activists] have been accused of unbelievable acts: espionage, corruption on earth, undermining national security, prostitution... which can keep them behind bars for up to 10 years or even lead to execution.
"From the very start of the judicial process all the way through to sentencing, many suspects are denied independent legal representation or prevented from unrestrained consultation with their lawyers...
"Given the lack of any response to communications and requests for the freedom of political prisoners, I am starting a hunger strike.
"With the hope that one day justice may prevail in my homeland; the land of Iran."
According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran:
"Sotoudeh's central demand, for which she embarked on her hunger strike, was for the release of Iran's political prisoners, who were largely left out of Iran's March 2020 mass prisoner release, which was implemented to stem the growing tide of COVID-19 infections in Iran's overcrowded and unhygienic prisons.
"Since that release, Iran's political prisoners have been contracting COVID-19 at alarming rates."
Sotoudeh has been at the forefront of the fight for human rights in Iran for many years. In 2012, she received the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for her work, which included representing dissidents arrested during mass protests in 2009, an effort for which she previously served three years in prison. She has also represented convicts on death row for offenses committed as minors. She is perhaps most famous for her defense of women's rights, including the defense of several women who protested against wearing the headscarf, or hijab, as part of the White Wednesday movement, where every Wednesday women would remove their headscarves, or wear a white shawl in support of those who did. One of these women, Shaparak Shajarizadeh, was arrested three times in one year for removing her hijab. Shajarizadeh wrote:
"I was beaten and brutalized in prison, my only breaks from the psychological torture of solitary confinement. It was the most frightening experience of my life — not just the pain — but that I felt so alone, suffering in solitude.
"But then Nasrin showed up. She told me that my struggle is her struggle — the struggle of all Iranian women — that I am not alone, and that she would not relent until I am free. Knowing Nasrin was there for me gave me solace and sustained me through it all. She courageously protested, spoke to the media, and navigated the complex and opaque Iranian legal system on my behalf".
Shajarizadeh managed to escape from Iran, but most of the other women from the movement did not. In September 2019, six women were handed sentences of a total of 109 years for refusing to wear a hijab.
Sotoudeh is not the only lawyer imprisoned in Iran for fighting for human rights. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran:
"At least five human rights attorneys are currently imprisoned in Iran under trumped-up charges, including one who is currently being held incommunicado. They are among a group of at least nine known cases of attorneys that have been arrested or charged in the last two years".
A recent report by Amnesty International, "Iran: Trampling Humanity - Mass arrests, disappearances and torture since Iran's 2019 November protests", published on September 2, describes how detainees in Iranian prisons are subjected to widespread torture, grossly unfair trials and death sentences based on torture-induced "confessions". According to Amnesty International:
"The organization's research found that victims were frequently hooded or blindfolded; punched, kicked and flogged; beaten with sticks, rubber hosepipes, knives, batons and cables; suspended or forced into holding painful stress positions for prolonged periods; deprived of sufficient food and potable water; placed in prolonged solitary confinement, sometimes for weeks or even months; and denied medical care for injuries sustained during the protests or as a result of torture.
"Other documented methods of torture included stripping detainees and spraying them with cold water, and subjecting detainees to extreme temperatures and/or bombardment of light or sound; forcible extraction of the nails from fingers or toes; pepper spraying; forced administration of chemical substances; using electric shocks; waterboarding; and mock executions".
A former prisoner, journalist and human rights advocate, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested on accusations of being a spy and sent to Evin Prison in 2009, was released after 100 days. She credits international efforts on her behalf for her release:
"I was very lucky to be released after 100 days. I believe that media coverage, along with people's efforts such as signing petitions, writing letters to Iranian officials, and speaking out for me helped pressure the Iranian authorities to release me after my appellate trial."
There seems to be little hope for the political prisoners of Iran today. Even despite a global outcry, the young wrestler Navid Afkari was executed on September 12 by the Iranian regime. US President Donald J. Trump had also appealed to Iran to let him live. The president said the wrestler's "sole act was an anti-government demonstration on the streets". "It is deeply upsetting, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wrote in a statement, "that the pleas of athletes from around the world and all the behind-the-scenes work of the IOC... did not achieve our goal".
Meanwhile, the international community rewarded Iran. On August 14, the UN Security Council voted against a US resolution to extend the 13-year arms embargo against Iran indefinitely. Instead, the embargo will expire in mid-October, allowing Iran to buy and sell conventional weapons without UN restrictions. Perhaps it is time for the US to defund the UN, rather than bankroll and be complicit in these crimes against humanity.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.