Written by Rick Gladstone
A prominent Iranian lawyer who defended women arrested when they defied Iran’s head-covering rule has been convicted of security-related crimes in a secret trial and could face a “very lengthy sentence,” a human-rights monitoring group reported Wednesday.
The group, the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said it had learned of the conviction of the lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, from her husband. She was seized at her home by security agents in June and placed in Evin Prison in Tehran.
Sotoudeh, 55, who has been in and out of Iranian prisons several times, is an international symbol of defiance to the limits on personal and political freedoms imposed by the Islamic Republic’s religious hierarchy. She won Europe’s most prestigious human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, in 2012.
The Iranian authorities have never specified why they seized her in June last year, but at the time Sotoudeh was defending women arrested when they removed their hijabs, or Islamic headscarves, in public protests.
Sotoudeh may also have angered the judicial authorities by publicly criticizing their decision to limit legal representation for defendants in political cases to a list of 20 state-approved lawyers. Sotoudeh was not on that list.
“No amount of spin will be able to conceal the fact that Sotoudeh is being persecuted for her peaceful defense of human rights in Iran, including a woman’s right to choose whether to wear a hijab,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, which is based in New York.
In September, Sotoudeh was tried in a Revolutionary Court in Tehran but refused to appear because she could not choose her lawyer, according to an account posted on the website of Ghaemi’s group.
Her husband, Reza Khandan, was sentenced to six years in January for illicitly posting updates about his wife’s case on Facebook, but he has yet to be imprisoned on that charge, Ghaemi said. The couple have two young children.
Ghaemi said Khandan had told him his wife recently requested from prison that a lawyer of her own choosing be allowed to examine the case file against her. The request was denied, Ghaemi quoted him as saying, because “the verdict has been issued and the case is closed.”
While the details have not been disclosed, Ghaemi said, at least seven charges are believed to have been lodged against Sotoudeh. They included collusion against national security, anti-state propaganda, membership in illicit groups, appearing before the judiciary without the required head covering, disturbing the peace, publishing falsehoods to disturb public opinion, and “encouraging corruption and prostitution.”
“Each charge has many years,” Ghaemi said. “It could be a very lengthy sentence.”
Sotoudeh’s conviction has not been reported in official Iranian news media. There was no immediate response to a request for comment from Iran’s United Nations mission in New York.
The prosecution of Sotoudeh has come against the backdrop of a resurgence of influence by the most hard-line elements of Iran’s leadership, particularly since the Trump administration took office two years ago.
President Donald Trump has moved aggressively to ostracize Iran, renouncing the nuclear agreement it reached with the Obama administration and five other world powers, and reimposing sanctions that the accord had eased in return for Iran’s peaceful nuclear development.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has said the Trump administration’s policies proved his long-standing suspicion that the United States could not be trusted — a view that may have emboldened the hard-liners in the government and weakened President Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a relative moderate.
The National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based group that advocates for improved relations with Iran but is highly critical of the country’s human rights record, said it was appalled by news of Sotoudeh’s conviction and called for her immediate release.
Jamal Abdi, the council’s president, said in a statement that responsibility for Sotoudeh’s incarceration “lies squarely with the Iranian authorities.” But he also pointed a finger at the Trump administration.
“As hard-liners seek to match Trump’s bellicosity and undermine moderates and the will of the Iranian people,” Abdi said, “human rights proponents like Sotoudeh often become the first victims.”