TEHRAN -- An Iranian human rights lawyer whose jailing spurred an international outcry is now going on a hunger strike, frustrated by restrictions on her family, her husband said Thursday.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, 49, was convicted last year of acting against national security and spreading propaganda against the government. The attorney, known for defending Iranian dissidents, had earlier angered the judiciary by denouncing the unannounced execution of one of her clients, whom she was allowed to meet only briefly.
She was sentenced last year to 11 years in jail and banned from practicing law for 20 years, to the outrage of fellow activists and global human rights groups. At the time, the U.S. State Department decried the sentence as an unjust and harsh attempt to silence defenders of democracy and human rights in the country. Amnesty International calls her a “prisoner of conscience.”
Her sentence has since been commuted to six years and she will be allowed to begin practicing law again after a decade. But while Sotoudeh now faces fewer years behind bars, other restrictions have been imposed on her and her family as she passes the days in Evin Prison in Tehran.
This summer, husband Reza Khandan and their daughter were forbidden from leaving the country. Sotoudeh has since been barred from hugging him and her two children on prison visits, her husband says. Instead, the family must communicate by phone behind a clear barrier.
“The authorities didn’t give us any reason why my wife cannot hug her son, who is suffering from asthma,” said Khandan, a 48-year-old illustrator who is caring for their two children, ages 12 and 6.
Khandan believes the family is being punished after his wife passed written notes to him on tissues, asking him to pass them along to her defense lawyer before her scheduled retrial.“Unfortunately, the sheets of tissues were discovered, and since three months ago, we cannot embrace her in our weekly meeting,” he said. The hearing to retry her case was delayed “until further notice.”
Sotoudeh announced Wednesday that she was beginning an indefinite hunger strike, drinking water and nothing else. Her husband worries she is already physically fragile and weak.
The famed attorney was put into solitary confinement for “a lengthy period” and waged three earlier hunger strikes in protest against her arrest and detention conditions, Amnesty International reported this year. Her defense attorney has also faced threats of arrests, the rights group said.
Sotoudeh had spoken out after being blindsided by the execution of 20-year-old Arash Rahmanipour, convicted of “taking up arms against God” for alleged involvement in an illegal monarchist group. The young man was executed at dawn without any notice to his attorney.
"We, as defense lawyers of human rights, are under so much pressure and restrictions, and the noose around us is tightening and we are insulted and threatened so much and verbally abused," Sotoudeh told The Times in an emotional interview more than two and a half years ago. “What makes me feel helpless, desperate and bitter is that our attempt to help our clients is doomed and in vain.”
She has now been in prison more than two years, her husband said.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran. Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Photo: Iranian attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh in 2007, prior to her arrest and conviction. Credit: Newsha Tavakolian / Polaris / For The Times