Nasrin Sotoudeh: ‘The only thing I want is to put an end to arrests’

Despite fears for her safety in Iran, the former political prisoner feels she ‘cannot stay silent’

 Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was held for three years in Evin prison and released after Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s election. She keeps a statue of the goddess of justice in her Tehran office. Photograph: Lara Marlowe

Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was held for three years in Evin prison and released after Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s election. She keeps a statue of the goddess of justice in her Tehran office. Photograph: Lara Marlowe

Fri, Jun 20, 2014, 01:00

“When I was in prison, I remembered the prison I visited in Ireland,” says Nasrin Sotoudeh (50), an Iranian human rights lawyer whose 2010-2013 imprisonment became a cause célèbre. “It helped me to tolerate my captivity.”

Sotoudeh visited Ireland in 2007, at the invitation of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. “The prison had been turned into a museum, and the cells were named for the Irish freedom fighters who were held there.

“I saw the cell where Bobby Sands lived. And I thought, ‘Maybe some day Evin Prison will be a museum, and there will be a cell with my name.’ It gave me courage.”

Sotoudeh, a laureate of the EU’s Sakharov Prize, is a petite woman with a soft voice, engaging smile and enormous courage. She was held in ward 209, reserved for political prisoners, after her conviction for “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime”.

Sotoudeh and her husband Reza Khandan, a graphic designer, are still banned from leaving Iran. Their apartment was broken into shortly after her release, and he has been physically threatened. Is she worried that hardliners will hurt her or her family? She pauses. “Of course I am. But I cannot stay silent for this reason.”

Hunger strike

Sotoudeh went on hunger strike four times, the last time for 49 days. “The first week is very difficult,” she recalls. “By the second week, you are used to it.”

Sotoudeh started her first hunger strike after the intelligence police took the diary she had kept after the birth of her son Nima, now 11. The last was prompted by the travel ban imposed on her daughter Mehraveh, now 15.

“My first hunger strike, I drank only water,” Sotoudeh recalls. “I knew the last one might go on a long time, because they would not easily meet my demands. So I ate two dates a day, and a cup of milk every second day. Towards the end, I was semiconscious and had impaired vision. I knew I risked permanent damage, but I was very desperate.”

By chance, Iranian newspaper Bahar serialised the memoirs of Bobby Sands during Sotoudeh’s last hunger strike, and she read them in her cell. After her release, she was asked to write a preface for the book version. “Gerry Adams had written a preface. I wrote a second preface, telling how I read the memoirs in Evin. Unfortunately, my preface was censored by the ministry of culture.”

Many of the reformers who were active during the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami have left Iran, including philosophers Mohsen Kadivar and Abdol Karim Soroush, former culture minister Ata’ollah Mohajerani, and investigative journalist Akbar Ganji. The revolution, it seems, has not stopped devouring its own children. Even Shirin Ebadi, the intrepid human rights lawyer and Nobel laureate, now lives in London.

“As an Iranian, I respect the choice they made to emigrate,” Sotoudeh says. “Wherever they are, they are working for the sake of this Iran. But it would have been better for the country if they had stayed and fought. I will never leave.”