High cost of dissent in Iran — 38 years and 148 lashes
By MELISSA ETEHAD AND RAMIN MOSTAGHIM | Los Angeles Times | Published: March 16, 2019
TEHRAN — A sentence of lashes and decades in prison handed down to a prominent human rights lawyer is the latest example of Iran’s expanding crackdown on such attorneys in an effort to silence dissent.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, who defended women protesting the nation’s mandatory headscarf law, was sentenced to a total of 38 years and 148 lashes, her husband said this week, clarifying that she would probably spend 12 to 17 years in prison based on penal code guidelines.
Sotoudeh, 55, who has won international human rights prizes, has been imprisoned since being taken from her home in June and is already serving a five-year sentence.
Sotoudeh was sentenced to an additional 33 years after being convicted of several more national security crimes this month, her husband, Reza Khandan, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week after a phone conversation with his wife. He said the Islamic penalty code stipulates that out of several verdicts, the longest one will be applied.
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said lashing is an unusual sentence for someone charged in a security case. He said it showed Iran is escalating its crackdown on human rights defenders.
“Sotoudeh is asking for rule of law. It shows how much (authorities) are afraid of her,” Ghaemi said in an interview.
Experts say that political activists, dissidents and opposition figures are no longer the only ones being targeted. Now, in an attempt to regain control in the aftermath of widespread civil unrest, Iran’s security forces and judiciary are eyeing those who defend dissidents.
“Iran’s security forces are really scared,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative.
“They are determined to terrify their own population and tell them they are going to maintain control.”
More than 40 lawyers who defend political activists have been arrested in the decade following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election.
But the Iranian judiciary intensified its clampdown in January 2018 after the country was rattled by its biggest anti-government demonstrations in nearly a decade. The protests were set off after a woman was arrested in Tehran for removing her headscarf in public.
By then, Iranians had grown increasingly frustrated with the country’s crumbling economy after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the landmark nuclear deal and reimposition of tough economic sanctions.
Thousands of Iranians took to the streets in more than two dozen cities to air their grievances, and hundreds were arrested.
After the wave of unrest, authorities arrested at least seven human rights attorneys, including Sotoudeh, and announced that defendants held on political charges were only able to choose lawyers from an approved list.
Human rights lawyer Mohammad Najafi was sentenced in October 2018 to three years in prison and 74 lashes for “publishing falsehoods” and “disturbing the state.”
In December 2018, a revolutionary court sentenced Qasem Sholehsadi and Arash Keykhosravi, two human rights lawyers, to six years in prison, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
The lengthy sentences and prospect of lashing are meant to intimidate lawyers and those they represent, experts said.
This isn’t the first time Sotoudeh has been imprisoned. She was arrested in 2010 for what Iran said was “spreading propaganda against the system.”
Sotoudeh was kept in solitary confinement during some of her time in prison and reportedly went on a hunger strike in October 2012 to protest how authorities were treating her family and being denied the opportunity to see her daughter and son.
She was released in 2013 when President Hassan Rouhani granted her a pardon.
After news spread this week of Sotoudeh’s recent sentencing, human rights groups and lawmakers called for her release.
“Sotoudeh must be released immediately and unconditionally and this obscene sentence quashed without delay,” Amnesty International’s Philip Luther said.
The U.S. State Department also demanded her release and called the sentence “barbaric.”
The European Union called for authorities to review Sotoudeh’s sentence and ensure her right to appeal. The European Parliament had awarded Sotoudeh the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012.
“The European Union notes that the right to protest peacefully, as well as the right to express opinion in a nonviolent manner, are cornerstones of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party,” the EU said in a statement.
On Monday, the semiofficial Islamic Republic News Agency reported a judge’s comments on the sentence; he gave a different version of the years she faced. The Revolutionary Court judge said that in addition to the five years of Sotoudeh’s earlier sentence for “colluding against the system,” she was given two years for “insulting” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the IRNA said. The report did not clarify which cases the judge spoke of, but a rights group said one appeared to be the 2015 conviction.
It’s unclear why there is a discrepancy in the description of Sotoudeh’s sentencing. But there have been several instances in Iran of well-known dissidents given draconian sentences only to have them quietly reduced.
Khandan, Sotoudeh’s husband, said the judiciary branch issued some verdicts to dishearten activists.
“When my wife or any civil or political activist is sentenced to two years of imprisonment for ‘insulting the supreme leader,’ then nobody shall dare to criticize the authorities,” he said.
He said she had been sentenced to 12 years for “spreading immorality and promulgating prostitution” and five years for other crimes such as taking part in illegal protests.
Staff writer Etehad reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.
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