x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Iran activist says hunger strike is 'unlimited'

Prominent human-rights lawyer Nasrin Soutoudeh is now entering her seventh week on a hunger strike in Tehran's infamous Evin prison.

Now entering her seventh week on hunger strike in Tehran's infamous Evin prison, Nasrin Sotoudeh is alarmingly weak in body but steely as ever in spirit.

When her distraught husband, Reza Khandan, was allowed a rare visit recently, he asked how long she would continue to refuse food. She replied: "My hunger strike is unlimited."

Slight and dark-haired, soft-spoken and modest, the 49-year-old mother-of-two from a religious middle-class family is one of Iran's most prominent human-rights lawyers, garlanded abroad for her courageous defence of dissidents.

The European Parliament last month awarded her its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, previously won by former South African president Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy figure.

Tehran is under increasing international pressure over her plight and that of many like Ms Sotoudeh who have received draconian sentences for championing democratic reform in Iran. The UN, EU, Britain and the US, along with international rights organisations, have condemned her imprisonment and called for her release.

Tehran's hardline judiciary jailed her for six years in September 2010 as a supposed threat to national security and for spreading propaganda against the regime.

Omid Memarian, a reformist journalist who writes about political repression in Iran, yesterday recalled her courage when she defended him after he was hauled before a Revolutionary Court several years ago.

"I can't forget her calm and determined face and her smile when the judge was shouting at her" because she refused to back off, Mr Memarian wrote in an email from the US. "Nasrin is one of the most committed lawyers I've seen in my life."

Her weight had dwindled to 43 kilograms since her family last saw her, her husband said yesterday. "Now she may have lost even more weight," Mr Khandan told the Los Angeles Times. "In the past 42 days she has drunk only salt water and sugar water solutions."

Mr Khandan, his five-year-old son, Nima, and his sister-in-law were hoping to visit her yesterday.

Iran maintained yesterday she was in "good health" and "has met her family".

Ms Sotoudeh, who spent long bouts in solitary confinement, went on hunger strike in mid-October when she was denied family visits for writing defence notes on tissue paper, and because her 12-year-old daughter, Mehraveh, was forbidden to leave the country.

"I can't sit here … and let them do whatever they want with my child and family," her husband quoted her as saying on his Facebook page.

Mr Khandan has been reprimanded for publicising her messages. But he continues to do so, speaking out defiantly like a growing number of otherwise unassuming relatives of political prisoners.

A resolution condemning a lengthy catalogue of rights abuses in Iran - most notably the "dramatic" increase in the use of the death penalty and public executions - was due to be voted on at the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday.

"Such widespread attention at the UN level certainly helps the plight of jailed dissidents and lawyers such as Nasrin Sotoudeh," said Hadi Ghaemi, the New York-based director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "This resolution will give voice to the voiceless."

Tehran shrugs off condemnation of its rights record by the US and EU as "politically-motivated". But Iran is acutely sensitive to similar criticism from the UN General Assembly where it views itself as a major player and leading light of the body's non-aligned members.

Among Ms Sotoudeh's clients was her mentor, Iran's Nobel peace laureate, Shirin Ebadi, a fellow human-rights lawyer who fled to Britain in 2009 after threats to her life.

Both were leading supporters of women's and children's rights. The regime in Tehran has long made clear it fears the well-organised activism of Iranian women, viewing their demands for equal rights as inseparable from the opposition's drive for greater democracy.

From exile, Ms Ebadi has been one of Ms Sotoudeh's staunchest defenders. "Journalists, human-rights lawyers and rights defenders held solely on account of their peaceful activities - none of these people should be in prison in the first place," she said recently, adding: "Bullying a prisoner's child or denying the prisoner family visits… only makes Iran look worse in the eyes of the world."

Ms Sotoudeh, a law graduate from the Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, began her career focusing on the rights of youths sentenced to death for crimes they committed as minors.

But from 2009, she also dared defend dissidents arrested after president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "stolen" re-election in the tumultuous summer of that year.

Having jailed scores of protesters, students and journalists after mass show trials, the regime targeted lawyers who bravely represented its critics. Many were locked up or fled Iran.

Ms Sotoudeh wrote in a recent letter to her children: "I know that you require water, food, housing, a family, parents, love and visits with your mother. But just as much you need freedom, social security, the rule of law and justice."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae