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Her Crime? Defending Women’s Rights in Iran

In their perverse way, dictatorships know full well they’re doing wrong when they imprison dissidents. They betray this by the absurdity of the accusations they make against their critics, as if trying to conceal the real intent of their persecution. The result, of course, is the opposite — the silenced dissenter emerges as the righteous accuser, the tyrant as crook.
The latest proof of this is the new prison sentence handed down against Nasrin Sotoudeh, the Iranian human rights lawyer in jail since June, on charges of “colluding against the system” and “insulting” the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. She had already been convicted, in absentia, of belonging to a human rights organization and stoking “corruption and prostitution” — an apparent reference to her defense of women arrested on charges of removing the mandatory Muslim head scarf. A few years earlier, Ms. Sotoudeh had been imprisoned for “activities against national security” and “propaganda against the regime.”
It does not require a lot of investigating to discern that Ms. Sotoudeh is guilty of none of the above. She is a lawyer who has represented abused children and mothers, activists and journalists. In doing so, she has lawfully and peacefully insisted that the theocracy at the helm of Iran abide by the rule of law and the human rights obligations it has signed on to. She has done so fully aware that law and truth are forces that the Islamic Republic abhors, and that simply invoking them incurs the wrath of the regime.
Her work has earned her the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (awarded in 2012, while she was serving time for her conviction for purportedly spreading anti-government propaganda) and numerous expressions of support from international human rights organizations.


Ms. Sotoudeh was first arrested in 2010 and sentenced to six years in prison, but released with 10 other political prisoners shortly before the Iranian president was to address the United Nations. She was arrested again last June and found guilty of several national-security-related charges; on Monday, her husband, Reza Khandan, reported that she had been sentenced on several more counts.

There were conflicting reports on the actual sentence. Mr. Khandan said his wife has been sentenced to a total of 38 years in prison, while an Iranian news report cited a judge who said she had been sentenced to seven years.
Mr. Khandan described the sentences in a Facebook post on Monday, saying that his wife had received a five-year prison term in one case and a sentence of 33 years in another. He said she had also been sentenced to receive 148 lashes.
Hopefully the sentence is not one that will effectively condemn the 55-year-old mother of two to life in prison. The flogging, if ordered and carried out, would amount to a horrendously cruel punishment, though one not unusual for Iran. More than 100 flogging sentences were handed down in Iran in 2017, and at least 50 were carried out, according to the United Nations.
Whatever the actual sentence, the persecution of Ms. Sotoudeh and other Iranian human rights lawyers represents a flagrant violation of a defendant’s fundamental right to counsel. Ms. Sotoudeh is one of at least seven human rights lawyers arrested in Iran over the past year, in what amounts to a declaration by the Islamist state that representing a political prisoner is in itself a political crime. Instead, decreed the courts, political prisoners must choose from a short list of court-approved lawyers.

That, Ms. Sotoudeh said in an interview shortly before her arrest last June, effectively allows the courts to interrogate, prosecute and sentence political prisoners without any information reaching the public. And with that, she said, “we have to say goodbye to the legal profession in Iran.”

Democratic governments and human rights organizations must make clear to the Islamist hard-liners in Iran that their kangaroo courts fool no one, whether those in the dock are dissidents or the lawyers who should be defending them.
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