Jailed Iranian Lawyer Puts Her Life on the Line

By Hadi Ghaemi and Aaron Rhodes

On a dry hunger strike since 31 October, Iranian human right lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh's health is in serious danger in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. By the time this is published, the mother of two may have sacrificed her life standing up to a government that has become one of the most repressive in the world.

She is protesting her illegal and baseless detention on 4 September, following which she has been held in solitary confinement, and denied visits from her husband, and her denial of due process. On November 4, her young children saw her briefly for the first time since her detention and, according to her husband, cried when they saw her diminished physical condition following a previous hunger strike. Colleagues have reported she has been tortured.

Sotoudeh has been charged with "acting against national security," "congregation and collusion with intent to disrupt national security," and "cooperation with the Center for Human Rights Defenders," which was one of Iran's leading human rights organizations before the authorities shut it down.

Sotoudeh is one of the most principled and courageous human rights lawyers in Iran, who has defended persecuted members of the human rights community including Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi. Following mass arrests of protesters and other reform-minded citizens after the disputed presidential election of June 2009, Sotoudeh became a vital source of legal assistance to jailed dissidents, women's rights advocates, and other prisoners of conscience.

Then, and now, she refused to compromise her moral and professional standards in the face of pressure from the Iranian Judiciary, which has come under the control of Iran's intelligence and security forces and become a tool of repression.

Like thousands of others unjustly and illegally imprisoned, Sotoudeh has been denied her due process rights. Contrary to Iranian law, she has been refused contact with her attorney. Her trial is scheduled to start on 15 November, but she was not even informed. According to information we have received from inside Iran, she is being manipulated and coerced into cooperating, with her prosecution, and falsely admitting her guilt.

What perhaps motivates Sotoudeh's sacrifice --and what has made her such a powerful attorney that she posed a threat to the system-- is her devotion to legal principles and procedures. With her life-threatening hunger strike, she is showing her persecutors and interrogators that she will not bend; that she will exercise the only freedom she has not been denied, her freedom over her own body and life.

She is also taking the only step that might arouse the attention of Iran's compliant politicians and clergy, and an international community that has largely ignored the government's savage treatment of its own citizens and international human rights norms. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has thus far been silent about her case. Breaking that silence might save Sotoudeh's life.

Hadi Ghaemi and Aaron Rhodes are, respectively, Executive Director and Policy Advisor of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.