Human Rights Lawyer Sentenced to 38 Years in Prison

On March 11, 2019, Iran’s most prominent human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for nine charges. She received 12 years for allegedly encouraging “corruption and prostitution,” according to her husband, Reza Khandan. The charge is likely connected to Sotoudeh’s representing a woman who was arrested for peacefully protesting the compulsory hijab (head covering) imposed after the 1979 revolution.


The specific number of years issued for each of the other charges against Sotoudeh was unclear. The initial sentence of five years was seemingly based on a 2015 case in which she was tried in absentia for “espionage in hiding.” The other 33 years were issued based on seven charges: “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the Legam group (against capital punishment), and the National Peace Council,” encouraging “corruption and prostitution,” “appearing at the judiciary without Islamic hijab,” “disturbing public peace and order” and “publishing falsehoods with the intent to disturb public opinion.” Sotoudeh was tried in absentia on December 30, 2018 at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, presided by Judge Mohammad Moghiseh who has repeatedly issued harsh sentences for politically motivated charges.

Sotoudeh’s new sentence sparked widespread outcry and protest from governments, human rights organizations and concerned individuals worldwide, including Amnesty International, the Center for Human Rights in Iran, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, the European Union Foreign and Defense Ministry, and French President Emmanuel Macron, who invited Sotoudeh to join the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino called the sentence “beyond barbaric.” The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, raised Sotoudeh’s case at the U.N. Human Rights Council on March 11. “Worrying patterns of intimidation, arrest, prosecution, and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, lawyers, and labor rights activists signal an increasingly severe state response,” Rehman said. Amnesty International said it was the harshest sentence it had documented against a human rights defender in Iran in recent years. 


Sotoudeh has been detained since June 13, 2018 when she was unexpectedly arrested at her home and taken to Evin Prison. At that time, she was told by government agents that she must serve a five-year prison sentence but was not given any other details, according to her husband.

Sotoudeh had spoken out against the application of a “Note to Article 48” of Iran’s 2015 Code of Criminal Procedure. The note denies individuals charged with certain offenses, including undermining national security, the right to choose their own lawyer. They must select from a list of pre-approved lawyers chosen by the judiciary chief, who issued a list of just 20 people for Tehran province in early June 2018. Tehran’s Bar association includes more than 20,000 lawyers. No women or human rights lawyers were approved by the judiciary. “A number of lawyers have said they are ready to hold a protest sit-in if necessary,” Sotoudeh told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on June 4, 2018. She was arrested one day after judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani defended the list. It “prevents attempts to let suspects escape justice in security cases,” he told Mizan, the judiciary’s official news service.

The U.S. State Department called for Sotoudeh’s release. “We call on Iranian authorities to release her immediately, along with the hundreds of others who are currently imprisoned simply for expressing their views and desires for a better life,” said Spokesperson Heather Nauert. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned Evin Prison in May 2018 for its involvement in human rights abuses by the government.

Sotoudeh has represented Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi as well as women’s rights activists, minors on death row, journalists, and Kurdish rights activists. In 2010, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison. She was charged with “propaganda against the system” and “acting against national security.” Her sentence was reduced to six years after international outcry by the United Nations and various human rights NGOs. She was granted an early release in September 2013 after spending three years in prison.

In November 2017, Sotoudeh refused to comply with a summons by a Revolutionary Court in Evin Prison. “I know the court will not follow legal procedures and I will be tried under unfair circumstances,” she told CHRI on November 20, 2017. “Therefore I will not appear in court; I know I have not broken any law.” The summons warned she would be arrested if she did not comply within three to five days. Since early 2018, Sotoudeh represented Narges Hosseini, who was arrested for peacefully protesting the compulsory hijab (head covering) imposed after the 1979 revolution. Hosseini refused to appear in court to face charges punishable by up to 10 years in prison for “encouraging immorality or prostitution.” She was held in detention because she was unable to pay the $135,000 bail set by the judge. Since December 2017, dozens of women have been harassed and arrested for protesting the dress code.

The following are international reactions to Sotoudeh's March 2019 sentencing.


U.S. State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino

The United States condemns the new prison sentences “in the strongest possible terms.”

“We are outraged to hear reports that the Iranian regime sentenced...Sotoudeh to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes.”

“This sentence is beyond barbaric.”

—March 12, 2019, in remarks to the press


European Union External Action

Ms. Sotoudeh, laureate of the Sakharov Prize in 2012, was convicted following a trial held in absentia which also featured a number of other violations of the right to due process. The European Union notes that the right to protest peacefully, as well as the right to express opinion in a non-violent manner, are cornerstones of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party.

The EU expects an immediate review of her sentence as well as the conviction of her husband Reza Khandan, who was sentenced to 6 years' imprisonment in January 2019. The European Union also expects Iran to ensure that both Mr. Khandan and Ms. Sotoudeh's right to appeal their sentences is protected.

—March 12, 2019, in a statement

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman

“Worrying patterns of intimidation, arrest, prosecution, and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, lawyers, and labour rights activists signal an increasingly severe state response.”

—March 11, 2019, at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva


Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran Hadi Ghaemi

“Sotoudeh has been sentenced in a Kafkaesque trial severely lacking in international standards of due process.”

“The Iranian Judiciary is punishing Sotoudeh for trying to uphold the rule of law and the right to a fair defense in cases involving defendants facing politically motivated charges.”

“First they went after the journalists, activists and dissidents. Now they’re going after their only line of defense.”

“By trying to make an example out of this courageous human rights attorney, the Iranian judiciary is making a mockery out of any notion of ‘justice’ in Iran.”

—March 11, 2019, in a statement


Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director Philip Luther

“It is absolutely shocking that Nasrin Sotoudeh is facing nearly four decades in jail and 148 lashes for her peaceful human rights work, including her defence of women protesting against Iran’s degrading forced hijab (veiling) laws. Nasrin Sotoudeh must be released immediately and unconditionally and this obscene sentence quashed without delay.”

“Nasrin Sotoudeh has dedicated her life to defending women’s rights and speaking out against the death penalty - it is utterly outrageous that Iran’s authorities are punishing her for her human rights work. Her conviction and sentence consolidate Iran’s reputation as a cruel oppressor of women’s rights.”

—March 11, 2019, in a statement