Iran Frees Top Human Rights Activist, Others

September 18, 2013

Garrett Nada

            In the first big move on human rights since President Hassan Rouhani took office, Iran released noted activist Nasrin Sotoudeh on September 18. The government did not make a formal announcement, but Rouhani’s office retweeted reports claiming that seven other female prisoners and four male prisoners were also freed. The move comes on the eve of Rouhani’s debut speech at the U.N. General Assembly, scheduled for September 24.
            President Rouhani had pledged to ease restrictions and political expression during his campaign.
            Mohsen Aminzadeh, a former deputy foreign minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, was among the male prisoners who were released. He was jailed in 2010 for organizing protests and spreading propaganda against the regime. Iran has some 800 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, according to an investigation by The Guardian.
      The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran talked to Sotoudeh shortly after she was freed. “When I was released, I did not sign for furlough. They told me, ‘You are free,’” Sotoudeh told the Campaign. “Other prisoners and lawyers should be released, too. They are there for political reasons belonging to a period that is over,” she added.
      Sotoudeh has been a political activist since the early 1990s and and defended some of Iran’s most prominent human rights activists, political dissidents and journalists. She played a prominent role after the disputed 2009 presidential election sparked the largest protests since the 1979 revolution. In one noted case, she worked with families who had members killed in the government crackdown after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection. Sotoudeh had also long been a champion of women’s demands for greater rights.

            Sotoudeh was arrested in September 2010 on charges of acting against state security and spreading propaganda. In 2011, a court sentenced her to 11 years in prison and barred her from practicing law or leaving Iran for 20 years. An appeals court later reduced the sentence to six years. She was placed in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. She twice went on long hunger strikes.
            Even from prison, Sotoudeh remained outspoken. She reportedly wrote a public letter to the head of Iran’s judiciary thanking him for imprisoning her, as she would have been horrified to be free when her clients were imprisoned.
            Human rights lawyers have been at the forefront of activism in Iran for more than a decade. Shirin Ebadi, who defended leading dissidents, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Sotoudeh was part of Ebadi’s Center for the Defense of Human Rights. Her arrest generated international attention. Last year, she was co-winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Union. She shared it with Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was under house arrest. As secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Iran to release her.
            President Barack Obama mentioned Sotoudeh in his 2011 message marking Nowruz, Persian New Year.
            "For nearly two years, there has been a campaign of intimidation and abuse. Young and old; men and women; rich and poor – the Iranian people have been persecuted. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are in jail. The innocent have gone missing. Journalists have been silenced. Women tortured. Children sentenced to death.
            "The world has watched these unjust actions with alarm. We have seen Nasrin Sotoudeh jailed for defending human rights; Jaffar Panahi imprisoned and unable to make his films; Abdolreza Tajik thrown in jail for being a journalist. The Bahai community and Sufi Muslims punished for their faith; Mohammad Valian a young student, sentenced to death for throwing three stones.
            "These choices do not demonstrate strength, they show fear. For it is telling when a government is so afraid of its own citizens that it won’t even allow them the freedom to access information or to communicate with each other. But the future of Iran will not be shaped by fear. The future of Iran belongs to the young people – the youth who will determine their own destiny."
            In response to the release of prisoners, the U.S. State Department issued the following statement on September 18.
            "We welcome today’s reports that the Iranian Government has released several prisoners of conscience, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.  President Rouhani pledged repeatedly during his campaign to restore and expand freedoms for all Iranians, and called for expanded political and social freedoms, including freedom of expression.  In the months ahead, we hope he will continue to keep his promises to the Iranian people. 
            The United States will continue to urge the Iranian Government to take steps to improve the country’s human rights situation.  Accordingly, we renew our call today for Iran to release all prisoners of conscience in its custody." 
            Iranian news websites reported that seven other female political prisoners were released within the last day, including journalist Mahsa Amrabadi. Three other men in addition to Mohsen Aminzadeh were released, including reformist politician Feizollah Arabsorkhi.
            But Iran also still has many political prisoners either in prison or under house arrest—most notably former presidential candidates Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. In the past, Iran has released prisoners before appearances by senior officials abroad, but this is the most significant release. It is the latest in a series of significant moves by Tehran. Since Rouhani took office, Iran has reopened its House of Cinema and economic planning office.
            The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran recently published a report outlining 74 specific recommendations for Rouhani’s government to end systematic human rights abuses. It emphasizes the restrictions on freedoms of expression and association, and details recommendations to ameliorate the human rights situation in the country, including cooperating with U.N. human rights mechanisms and removing Internet censorship to allow free expression.
            “At a time when bloggers, journalists, and activists are being persecuted for expressing their opinions, Iran’s foreign minister has an official presence on social media websites that are blocked for ordinary Iranians,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Rouhani is in a position to ensure that all Iranians have freedom of expression. To assure the international community that he is serious, Rouhani should continue to take the necessary steps to stop the egregious human rights violations in Iran.”