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Iran's Most Dangerous Jobs

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

11 Nov 2010 16:42Comments

Attorney, Journalist, Nationalist, Religious: The Unbreakable Nasrin Sotoudeh

NasrinSotoudeh.jpgThroughout Iran's modern history, certain careers have always been extremely dangerous to pursue. Given that, except for brief periods, Iran has been run by one type of dictatorship or another, pursuing a career in politics has always been considered perilous. What my late father told me in 1972 summed up perfectly the political situation in that era, and it still applies. I had just graduated from high school and was going to take the national entrance examinations for the universities. I wanted to study political science -- even in high school, politics was my passion. My late father told me, "If you study political science and pursue higher degrees -- which I know you will -- you will either join the opposition or the government [of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi]. Being a part of the opposition will land you in jail. Being part of the Shah's government will also eventually land you in jail, because this regime will someday be overthrown. Either way, you might even get killed. So forget about pursuing politics as a profession."

Aside from politics, since the dawn of the 20th century, perhaps no other career has been as dangerous to pursue in Iran as journalism. Consider, for example, the Constitutional Revolution era of 1905-8. Mirza Jahangir-Khan Shirazi (1875-1908), better known as Mirza Jahangir-Khan Sur-e Esrafil, a journalist, intellectual, revolutionary, and founder and editor of the progressive weekly Sur-e Esrafil, was executed after Mohammad-Ali Shah Qajar's coup against the Constitutionalists. He hated Sur-e Esrafil so much that he personally attended his hanging. Author and literary critic Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani (1853-1908) was also beheaded on the order of Mohammad-Ali Shah. Sheikh Mohammad Khiabani (1880-1920) was killed in the twilight years of the Qajar dynasty. A leftist revolutionary, Khiabani reestablished the Democrat Party of Tabriz after it had been banned for five years. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, he published the daily Tajaddod (Modernity) as the mouthpiece of his political party. He was killed by government forces. The jailing and killing of journalists has continued ever since, as I described in detail in a previous article.

Being a politically inclined attorney and representing the people has also been a dangerous profession in Iran. This has been true ever since national hero Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh became the first Iranian to receive a doctorate in law in France in 1919. By nationalizing the oil industry and standing up to the United States and Britain he acted, in effect, as an attorney representing the entire Iranian nation. Even before Mosaddegh, Ali Akbar Davar (1888-1937), one of Reza Shah's most faithful servants and the architect of the modern Iranian judiciary, committed suicide because he thought that Reza Shah was going to murder him.

After the CIA-MI6 coup of 1953 overthrew Dr. Mosaddegh, the Shah consistently refused to admit that Iran had any political prisoners. Whenever he was asked about them by the foreign press, his standard answer was, "We do not have political prisoners. What we do have are terrorists." The domestic press did not even dare to ask the question.

Today, the Shah's assertion is repeated by the Islamic Republic, albeit with a different "rationale." Iran's judiciary claims routinely that Iran does not have political prisoners because "political offense has not even been defined." Instead of calling them "murderers," as the Shah used to do, the Islamic Republic refers to peaceful protestors as "foreign agents." Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei recently called them "microbes."

By denying that Iran had any political prisoners, the Shah instigated another problem. The civilian courts refused to put political prisoners on trial. The judges were honorable men who refused to accept the Shah's declaration that Iran did not have any political prisoner. That forced the Shah to put the political prisoners through show trials in the military courts. To prove to the public that the political prisoners were actually terrorists, the Shah ordered the live broadcast of military trials of two leftist intellectuals and members of the opposition. At the same time, his government was the host to a conference on human rights in Tehran, and the Shah was trying to present himself as respectful of human rights.

The Shah's attempt to present himself as a "champion" of human rights is eerily similar to the current claims by officials of the Islamic Republic that they care about human rights -- not in Iran, of course, but in the United States, Canada, Britain, and other Western countries, as well as in Palestine. After all, according to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "Iran is the freest country in the world," and thus there is no need to worry about human rights violations in Iran and the plight of its political prisoners.

golsorkhiCourt.jpgOne of the two intellectuals whose trial the Shah had broadcast was Khosrow Golsorkhi (1944-74), a poet, journalist, and communist activist. The other was movie director, poet, and leftist activist Keramat Daneshian (1944-74). The two had been arrested on the charge of planning to kidnap the Shah and his family. I still vividly remember the trial. Golsorkhi was most eloquent and instead of defending himself, he put the Shah's regime on trial. He also declared that, though he was a socialist, he had utmost respect for Imam Ali and his son Imam Hussein, the first and third Shia Imams and two deeply revered figures in Iran, thus dashing the Shah's hopes of presenting the two intellectuals as "Godless communists."

The trial backfired. The courage of Golsorkhi and Daneshian greatly affected the people. They could see the true face of the Shah's regime, and the depth of brutality of his dictatorship. The two men were told that if they asked the Shah for clemency, they would not be executed and might even be released. Each refused, as each refused to be blindfolded when they were put to death.

The hardliners have told the current political prisoners the same as the Shah's regime, namely, that if they ask Supreme Leader Khamenei to pardon them, they will be released or their sentences greatly reduced. To my knowledge no one has. The result is that they suffer through long jail sentences. For example, Mahsa Amrabadi has said that because her husband, journalist Masoud Bastani, refused to ask for clemency, he was given a sentence of 15 years. Amrabadi herself has been given a one-year sentence for talking publicly about her husband's plight. Dr. Ahmad Zeidabadi, a distinguished and courageous journalist, has been given a six-year jail sentence, five years of internal exile, and a life ban from writing simply because he wrote a critical letter to Khamenei and refused to apologize for it. His family has been pressured to be silent about his case. Arash Rahmanipour, who was executed several months ago at the age of 19, had been told that if he "confessed" -- to offenses that he had not committed -- his sentence of death would be reduced to ten years of imprisonment. His father was threatened with arrest if his son did not "confess."

Reformist journalist Abdolreza Tajik was arrested in June, and for a while no one knew where he was. After his family finally found out where he was detained, his sister, Parvin Tajik, told the BBC that his brother had said, "When they brought me in, on the first night of detention, in the presence of the Deputy Attorney General and the magistrate of the Branch 1 [of Tehran's judiciary], I was violated (my self-respect and dignity were violated)." She was swiftly summoned to the court and accused of propaganda against the State.

No official of the Islamic Republic is willing to answer a simple question: If what is done to the political prisoners is legal, then why are their families also threatened, or arrested, even given jail sentences, for merely talking about the plights of their loved ones?

After the 1979 Revolution, Iran's judiciary underwent fundamental changes, and for the worse. In addition to the usual courts, revolutionary courts were established. On the order of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the "Special Court of the Clergy" was also set up, essentially as a tool for suppressing dissident clerics. Still in operation, it is an illegal court lacking any basis in the Constitution.

Even in Iran's present judiciary, the vast majority of the judges are honorable men. But a small extremist faction -- most if not all of them graduates of the Haghani seminary school in Qom led by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi -- deal with the political prisoners. Those judges who refuse to pass down long sentences in political cases are immediately removed. In 2000, journalist Akbar Ganji was given a 12-year sentence. Judge Ali Bakhshi of the Appeal Court set it aside and ordered a sentence of six months, finding that Ganji had committed essentially no offense. Bakhshi was immediately forced to leave the judiciary, and his ruling was overturned. Ganji ultimately served out a six-year sentence.

In this atmosphere, it is clearly dangerous to be a journalist and an attorney, representing political prisoners, and being involved in human rights issues. There are very few such noble people in Iran. One such person is Nasrin Sotoudeh, the utterly courageous journalist, attorney, and human rights advocate.

Nationalist and Religious

Nasrin Sotoudeh Langroudi was born in 1963 in Tehran to a middle-class family, with one sister and two brothers. Her father was a businessman and her mother a homemaker. Her parents, particularly her mother, were very religious. Sotoudeh thus also grew up as a religious person. She has said that although her mother was deeply faithful and had no advanced education, she allowed her children to explore religion for themselves and form their own ideas. Sotoudeh, as it turned out, was strongly influenced by her mother's example and still considers herself a religious woman.

After graduating from high school, Sotoudeh passed the national entrance examination and was admitted to Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. She received a master's degree in international law in 1989. While a university student, she was influenced by the work of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition (NRC), a group opposed to the hardliners. The NRC is composed of several Islamic leftist groups that opposed the Shah. Several of its leading figures were cabinet members of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (1907-95), formed after the Shah's regime was toppled. When Islamic leftist students overran the United States Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, Bazargan and his cabinet resigned, and the NRC joined the opposition. The group is currently led by such longtime political figures as Ezatollah Sahabi and Dr. Habibollah Payman. The latter, a dentist, was the founder of Jonbesh-e Mosalmaanaan-e Mobaarez (Movement of Militant Muslims), an Islamic leftist and anti-imperialist group that was active from 1977 to 1981. It suspended operations for many years thereafter to protect its members and supporters from the prosecutions and executions of the 1980s, but returned to political activism in the 1990s.

Beginning in 1991, Sotoudeh and some of her like-minded nationalist-religious friends began publishing Daricheh Goftegoo (Conversation Hatch), a monthly magazine that quickly became very popular. She was the only woman on the eight-member editorial board. Secular leftists were involved in Daricheh as well. The two groups were linked by a common thread: opposing the hardliners and reactionaries. Sotoudeh was in charge of the pages reporting on social developments. As the magazine grew in popularity, it began exploring subjects hitherto taboo in the Islamic Republic and emphasizing the idiomatically Iranian aspects of the lives of those it profiled and interviewed -- such as Bazargan and Payman -- rather than the exclusively religious aspects favored by the regime. While working at Daricheh, Sotoudeh also met her future husband, Reza Khandan. They were married in 1994 and have an 11-year-old daughter, Mehraveh, and a three-year-old son, Nima.

Sotoudeh passed the bar exam in 1995. But it was not until eight years later that she received her license to practice law. The reason? Like everything else in Iran, the process of obtaining such a license is politicized. The Ministry of Intelligence was opposed to allowing Sotoudeh to practice law due to her connection with the opposition Nationalist-Religious Coalition. She credits Farideh Gheyrat, a leading attorney representing some of the best-known political prisoners, with helping her obtain her license.

The 1990s witnessed two opposing trends. On the one hand, as memories of the war with Iraq receded, there was an expansion of political freedom that allowed Daricheh; Iran-e Farda, published by Ezatollah Sahabi, leader of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition; Kian, published by followers of the distinguished Islamic scholar Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush; and the daily Salaam, published by leftist Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha to appear. In the same era, on the other hand, the secret murder of dissidents and intellectuals -- which came to be known as the Chain Murders in autumn 1998 -- was taking place. The Ministry of Intelligence, led by the notorious cleric Ali Fallahian, kept summoning journalists, intellectuals, and dissidents to its headquarters and warning them about their activities. The staff of Daricheh was no exception.

A worried Sotoudeh consequently prepared a pamphlet about the rights of political detainees and prisoners. Titled Political Offense, it described the legal procedures for detaining and interrogating political activists and their rights while in custody. It emphasized that, according to Article 168 of the Constitution, a political dissident can be put on trial only with an impartial jury and in a court open to the public. As Sotoudeh herself once said once, the very first people who could have benefited from the pamphlets were, ironically, the gang of intelligence agents who murdered six dissidents and intellectuals in late 1998 (and had killed many more over the preceding decade) -- people such as gang leader Saeed Eslami (Emami), his close aides Mostafa Kazemi and Khosrow Barati, and 12 others detained for the Chain Murders.

With the dawn of the Khatami presidency in 1997, the Tehran Spring also arrived -- an era with a relatively free press. Thus, Sotoudeh began contributing to and writing for other leading Reformist dailies and weeklies of that era. Her first article, which was about the rights of women, was published in Jame'eh, followed by an important article, "Political Crimes in the Law and Criminology," in the same daily in 1998. She also published many articles in Toos, Sobh-e Emrooz, Abaan, and Nameh (under the editorship of Kayvan Samimi). The first two were closed in April 2000 after an angry speech by Khamenei in which he accused the reformist newspapers of being under foreign influence or outright foreign agents. Her other important articles included "Chain Murders in Iran" and "International Women's Day and Iran's Law," in Abaan in 1999, and "Women's Rights, before and after the Revolution," in Nameh, "Who is Responsible for Children Rights?" in Abaan, and "Women's Rights in Constitutional Laws: Japan, Russia, United States of America, Bulgaria, and Iran," in Jomhouriat, all in 2004.

According to Sotoudeh, she was struck from an early age by the patriarchal culture of the workplace, in which men would make all the important decisions. So she began talking about women's rights. For International Women's Day on March 8, 1991, she put together a collection of articles by Shirin Ebadi (the 2003 Nobel Laureate for Peace) and Mehrangiz Kar, two leading female attorneys, as well as interviews with Noush Afarin Ansari and Parvaneh Eskandari, who would later be killed along with her husband, Dariush Forouhar, as part of the Chain Murders. But Daricheh's editor decided against publishing the collection, which made Sotoudeh even more determined to fight for women's rights.

Gradually, Sotoudeh expanded her activities. After receiving her license to practice law in 2003 and influenced by Ebadi's work, she joined the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, which Ebadi had founded. Members of the Center, including many prominent attorneys, defend political prisoners on a pro bono basis. She also joined the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Children and for two years was a member of its board of directors. Sotoudeh was one of the first to join the Campaign for One Million Signatures (CFOMS), a movement dedicated to the abolition of discriminatory laws against Iranian women, and became one of its most active members. When leading members of the Campaign were arrested, it was Sotoudeh who represented them. Indeed, the fact that women knew that if they were arrested, Sotoudeh would be their advocate gave many the inspiration and confidence to join the Campaign.

There was to be a gathering to commemorate the national day of solidarity of Iranian women on June 12, 2008, in Tehran. As Sotoudeh and eight other woman activists were preparing to attend, they were arrested by security forces. Sotoudeh was held in custody for a day. Many other women were arrested at the gathering itself, which was held in 7th Tir Square. Sotoudeh, Ebadi, and Leila Ali-Karami represented them in court. On February 13, 2009, Sotoudeh herself was put on trial, accused of disturbing the public and disobeying the police. Her sentence has yet to be announced.

Not long before, Sotoudeh had been awarded the Human Rights Prize, given by the International Human Rights Organization of Italy. The award ceremony took place in the Italian city of Mirano on December 10, 2008, anniversary of the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. But as Sotoudeh was departing Tehran to receive her award, her passport was confiscated and she was barred from leaving the country. Her husband received the honor on her behalf. Her speech accepting the award was recorded and released.

One question that many ask is, Why does the Islamic Republic allow some dissidents to leave the country, while barring the travel of others? The answer is clear. Most, if not all, well-known dissidents that have been arrested have been told that they can get their passports and leave the country, provided that they do not return. Some have taken the offer and left. Others have refused. Those that turn down the offer are not allowed to travel abroad because the hardliners do not want the dissidents to describe the terrible political situation in Iran and the plight of political prisoners to foreign audiences and then return. The hardliners are scared, fearful that such dissidents will become living heroes among the people of Iran.

Sotoudeh was also very involved in the presidential election of June 2009. She helped form the Coalition of Women's Rights Movement, participated actively in the election campaign to raise people's awareness about women's demands, and conveyed them to the four candidates. After the rigged election, she demonstrated her commitment to citizens' right to elect whomever they wanted by supporting the Green Coalition of Women's Rights Movement. All these activities angered the hardliners, eventually resulting in her arrest.

The list of people represented by Sotoudeh is a Who's Who of Iranian human rights advocates, journalists, and political figures. She has represented Nobel Laureate Ebadi; Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, former university student activist, political dissident, and leader of the banned Democratic Front of Iranian people; journalists Eisa Saharkhiz, Kayvan Samimi, Mohammad Sedigh Kaboodvand (a Kurdish human rights activist as well), and Omid Memarian, who now lives in the United States.

She has also represented many that are active in the women's rights movement, such as journalist and Kurdish human rights activist Dr. Roya Toloui; journalist and human rights activist Farnaz Seifi; writer and human rights advocate Mansoureh Shojaee; Talat Taghinia; Parvin Ardalan; journalist, community rights activist and CFOMS member Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani; human rights advocate and CFOMS member Khadijeh Moghaddam and her husband, Ali Akbar Khosrowshahi; journalist Maryam Hosseinkhah; Jelveh Javaheri; human rights activist Nahid Keshavarz; CFOMS members Raheleh Asgarizadeh and Nasim Khosravi; Mahboubeh Hosseinzadeh; university student and CFOMS member Amir Yaghoub-Ali; Delaram Ali; CFOMS member Nahid Jafari; former university student activist Somayeh Farid; and university student activist Atefeh Nabavi.

Sotoudeh also represented Arash Rahmanipour, who was executed in January at the age of 19 on trumped-up charges of mohareb (warring against God) and plotting to overthrow the regime. (Even if Rahmanipour committed any actual offense, note that he was but 17 when he was arrested.) It was she who revealed information about his unconscionable condition in jail.

Sotoudeh has also represented the families of Ahmad Nejati Kargar and Meysam Ebadi, who were killed by security forces last year in the aftermath of the fraudulent election.

Three people were even arrested at a gathering to commemorate Nejati Kargar's death. Such is the state of affairs in Iran, the "freest country in the world," according to Ahmadinejad.

On September 5, 2010, Sotoudeh was arrested and imprisoned in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Before her arrest, she had been repeatedly threatened with imprisonment if she did not quit representing Ebadi in her dispute with the judiciary. She has been accused of acting against national security and disseminating propaganda against the political system. The judiciary has also claimed that Sotoudeh's membership in the Center for the Defense of Human Rights is an offense. The allegations are baseless. Sotoudeh's only "offense" is defending the political prisoners and working to protect their rights. She had made it clear that she would be happy to be arrested, because it would subject her to conditions similar to those suffered by her clients.

Denied bail and prevented from seeing even her own family members, Sotoudeh began a hunger strike on October 6. Her health deteriorated with each passing day. Many leading political figures, human rights advocates and dissidents, including her close friend and colleague Shirin Ebadi, called on her to stop her hunger strike. Finally, on October 26, Sotoudeh ended the strike. Six days later, however, she went on another dry hunger strike, which she ended on November 10.

Sotoudeh's trial has been set for Monday, November 15. An international campaign led by Ebadi has been trying to compel the hardliners to set her free, at least on a temporary basis. Sotoudeh and all those who put their lives on the line to advance the cause of democracy and respect for human and citizen rights of Iranians deserve the support of all decent human beings.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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