Iran: 'Iran Jails Another Lawyer'

Shirin Ebadi for The Wall Street Journal

This week Iran's judicial authorities sentenced my friend Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer, to 11 years in prison. Her case has attracted only modest attention in the West, but it is the latest example of Iran's unrelenting crackdown on dissent. It deserves greater notice. Nasrin belongs to a younger generation of Iranian human rights defenders who are being systematically bullied by the state into abandoning their work. The government has forced many into exile abroad, while meting out harsh prison sentences to others, like Nasrin, in order to intimidate the remaining few.

The court imprisoned Nasrin—and barred her from practicing law or leaving the country for 20 years—after finding her guilty of "acting against national security" and of "propaganda against the regime." Iran's government routinely levels these charges against lawyers, journalists, nongovernmental organization workers and others whose work it finds troublesome. Nasrin's only crime has been her passionate defense of Iran's most legally vulnerable citizens: juvenile offenders facing the death penalty, human rights campaigners, and prisoners of conscience.

I first met Nasrin almost 20 years ago, as she was finishing her law degree. Her steely determination was striking. She defended a number of cases for the Committee to Defend Children, an institute I had founded that offered pro bono legal representation to juvenile offenders. Years later she also sought the help of another group I had formed, the Defenders of Human Rights Center. We provided free legal counsel to Iranians accused of political crimes or crimes of conscience, and in some circumstances we extended financial help to families of political prisoners.

One of my most vivid memories of Nasrin harks back to an evening in 2007, just before the birth of her second child, Nima. A number of us were meeting at a private home to discuss women's rights in Iran, when a sharp knock at the door interrupted our conversation. Uniformed police burst into the room and detained a number of the women present.

One of the police officers told Nasrin that they had no intention of detaining her, so she was free to go home. "I'm not going anywhere," she told them, all the while protesting loudly at the arrests. "My friends who you're taking away are my clients, and they're going to need me."

Eight months pregnant, she spent the night in a cold cell at the police station with her new clients and defended them the next morning like a lioness. She managed to secure their release that very day.

After the contested presidential election of 2009, Nasrin grew even more bold in her legal challenges against officials who flouted the law. She took on the widely publicized case of Arash Rahmanipour, a young man who was arrested and later executed for his alleged involvement in unrest following the election. As Nasrin made known, Rahmanipour confessed only after Iranian authorities made threats against his family.

Last September came her arrest. In the early days of her detention, security officials offered to release her swiftly if she participated in a televised confession of her guilt. If only Nasrin confessed to her alleged crimes, spoke out against me and other colleagues, and requested the pardon of the country's supreme leader, she would be reunited with her family.

She declined. Then, as she has since recalled, one of the officials said to her, "I will ensure that you stay in prison for over 10 years, and that by the time you're released your three-year-old son will have grown into a man taller than you."

Iran's judges simply hand down verdicts ordained by security officials, so Nasrin indeed got sentenced to 11 years in prison. She has protested her unfair trial and will appeal.

Because the country's security officials are incensed by the persistence of this slight and delicate woman, they've kept her in solitary confinement throughout her detention. Once a month, from behind a glass window and through a phone that is monitored by prison officials, she is permitted to speak to her husband. The authorities have refused her even a single visit with her two small children.

The authorities' aim, of course, is to turn Nasrin's fate into a lesson for Iran's community of lawyers. A revolutionary court has summoned her husband, Reza, and her own attorney, Nasrin Ghanavi, and threatened to charge them as well. The message to Nasrin is clear: Your determination will inflict much pain upon your husband and friends.

Recent years have shown that the Iranian authorities will continue trying to chip away at the determination of Iran's brave young lawyers. This week's sentence only confirmed the point. As for Nasrin, I know she will stand firm and continue down the challenging path she has chosen.

By Shirin Ebadi