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Iran: Imprisoned rights activist on hunger strike

Shabnam von Hein
September 3, 2020

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is protesting against prison conditions by going on a hunger strike. Her supporters, among them EU parliamentarians, fear for Sotoudeh's life.

Nasrin Sotoudeh
Image: Iran Emrooz

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights activist who has been locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison for more than two years, has been on a hunger strike for the last three weeks in protest against the "lawlessness in Iranian prisons" and the inhumane conditions in the overcrowded women's wing.

An online campaign has been launched for the immediate release of the 56-year-old laureate of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, who began her protest on August 11.

Futile contact attempts by EU delegates

"We have no time to lose, her life is at stake," said Heidi Hautala, vice-president of the European Parliament. 

Hautala, of Finalnd, and Belgium's Maria Arena, chairwoman of the EU Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights, called on the Iranian authorities on August 18 to listen to Sotoudeh's demands. Hautala told DW that she has tried in vain to contact Iranian authorities via the EU embassy in Tehran.

Heidi Hautala
Heidi Hautala, vice-president of the European Parliament, is concerned about Sotoudeh's conditionImage: Nina Lindfors

"It seems that the regime really believes that Nasrin Sotoudeh is a threat to its existence. That is why she is being treated so harshly," Hautala said. The MEP said it is absolutely necessary that the world public and EU diplomats in Tehran strongly support the campaign to release Sotoudeh, as she is getting weaker.

Sotoudeh's husband, Reza Khandan, said Sunday that his 56-year-old wife has already lost more than 6 kilograms (13 pounds). Khandan said he is allowed to speak with her three times a week for 10 minutes. Afterward, he shares her messages with the public via social media.

On Monday, he announced that Sotoudeh had refused an intravenous administration of a saline solution to treat her symptoms. She was suffering from nausea and could not take in enough water and sugar on her own, which was vital. However, she said that ending her hunger strike is out of the question, Khandan said.

Campaign for political prisoners

Sotoudeh wants to use her action to secure the release of political prisoners in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Faced with the threat of the virus spreading in the prison system, the Iranian judiciary reportedly sent some 85,000 prisoners on parole in early March. However, human rights activists and civil society activists were excluded from this decision and remain remain incarcerated in Evin prison.

According to a report on the spread of the COVID-19 in Iranian prisons published in mid-April by Amnesty International, the regime thus "deliberately exposes them to the risk of infection in overcrowded prisons under poor hygienic conditions."

A banner showing Nasrin Sotoudeh covers the side of a building in Paris
Supporters in Paris have also called for Sotoudeh's releaseImage: picture-alliance/abaca/P. Pierrot

Sotoudeh is considered Iran's most prominent political prisoner. She has worked mainly as a lawyer for dissidents and has been sentenced to several prison terms for her work since 2010. In March 2019, she was sentenced to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes with a whip for alleged "disturbance of public order" and "endangering national security." Shortly before her arrest in 2018, she defended two young women who had been arrested for protesting against the headscarf law.

'Iran needs its heroes alive'

"Because she is committed to me and to you, Nasrin Sotoudeh is behind bars. Her life is in danger because of us," wrote artist Barbad Golshiri on Twitter. For many Iranians, Sotoudeh has become a symbol of peaceful civil resistance. In the meantime, 44 Iranian lawyers have written an open letter asking Sotoudeh to end her hunger strike. "The authorities refuse to listen to your voice of justice. Please do not endanger your health."

The call was joined on Twitter by the former director of solar system exploration at NASA, Firouz Naderi. "Dear Nasrin, Iran needs its heroes alive. Please end your hunger strike," wrote the Iranian-American scientist. 

On August 29, Iranian users launched a Twitter campaign to demand the immediate release of Sotoudeh and other political prisoners.