Jailed women’s treatment illustrates Iran’s abuse of human rights

‘Courageous and respected’ Nasrin Sotoudeh has gone on hunger strike in Tehran prison

They are two women among hundreds of political prisoners in Iran. Both are incarcerated on the women's ward of Tehran's Evin Prison. Both have received five-year sentences. Both maintain contact with the outside world through devoted husbands.

The veteran defence lawyer and human rights campaigner Nasrin Sotoudeh (55) was arrested on June 13th. She started a hunger strike on Sunday, August 25th. The authorities have not formally charged Sotoudeh, but according to her husband, Reza Khandan, a graphic artist, she has been told that she is "guilty" of eight charges, including "urging a referendum", "insulting the supreme leader", "collusion against national security" and espionage.

Nazanin Zagari-Ratcliffe (40) is an Iranian-born administrator with the Thomson Reuters charitable foundation. Amnesty International reported that she collapsed from a panic attack on Wednesday. She was sent back to prison on August 26th after enjoying her first three days of freedom in 2½ years.

Zagari-Ratcliffe was arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016 when she was returning to Britain after a holiday with her Iranian parents in Tehran. She was charged with espionage, which she denies. Her British husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has campaigned ceaselessly for her release.


On August 22nd, 60 members of the European Parliament, including Irish MEPs Lynn Boylan, Matt Carthy, Marian Harkin and Liadh Ni Riada, signed a letter to the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani pleading with him to "do all within your power to ensure [Sotoudeh's] unconditional release".

In 2012, Sotoudeh was awarded the EU Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. She was imprisoned from 2010 until 2013 on charges similar to those levelled against her today.

‘Inspiration to many’

During her previous imprisonment, Sotoudeh went on hunger strike four times, the last time for 49 days. The MEPs’ letter to Rouhani calls Sotoudeh “an immensely courageous and respected lawyer, who is an inspiration to many in Iran and all over the world”.

Sotoudeh is a soft-spoken, petite woman who defended protesters from the 2009 revolt, members of the Baha’i faith and, most recently, women who tore off their headscarves in public, in protest at the regime’s laws on hijab or Islamic covering.

Sotoudeh began her present hunger strike because the authorities refused to respond to her correspondence, and because agents from the intelligence ministry ransacked her home, that of her sister-in-law and another human rights activist on August 18th. They confiscated satellite television dishes and pins with the slogan “I am against forced hijab” printed on them.

When I interviewed Sotoudeh in 2014, I was impressed by her lack of bitterness and quiet determination. She told me that the judiciary system was in the hands of hardliners, who use arrests and executions to show their power.

Sotoudeh was freed in 2013 in the wake of the election of Rouhani, a moderate. Political prisoners are hostages to the endless power struggle between moderates and hardliners.

‘Strategic error’

Omid Memarian, deputy director of the New York-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran, said European governments, which unlike the US maintain diplomatic relations with Tehran, made a "strategic error" by ignoring human rights abuses in the interest of concluding and preserving the Iran nuclear accord, which Donald Trump has renounced. Memarian estimates there are "hundreds" of political prisoners in Iran.

Seven other human rights lawyers have been arrested, summoned to court or blocked from defending clients in Tehran this year.

The treatment of Zagari-Ratcliffe shows how the Iranian judiciary plays on the nerves of prisoners. She was allowed to leave Evin Prison on August 23rd on 10 minutes’ notice. During their three days together, her four-year-old daughter Gabriella kept asking how long her mother would be free.

Zagari-Ratcliffe was told on the morning of August 26th that her prison leave had been extended. Later the same day, she was ordered to return to Evin, the French daily Libération reported. "You cannot give a mother back to a little girl, then take her away after three days. It's beyond cruelty," she told her husband, weeping.

Amnesty International reported on Wednesday that Zagari-Ratcliffe had collapsed in prison. The human rights groups said she receives inadequate medical care for symptoms of panic attacks including low blood pressure, severe headaches, a rash all over the body and numbness in her limbs.