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Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and Farhad Meysami, a human rights defender, protest the suspension of  Sotoudeh's law license in front of the Tehran bar association in Tehran, February 2015.  © Private 2015

(Beirut) – A prominent human rights lawyer arrested in June 2018 to serve a previously unrevealed prison sentence faces new charges, apparently solely due to her human rights work, Human Rights Watch said today. The recent release of a verdict against Nasrin Sotoudeh in an earlier court case also reveals the grave degree the Iranian judiciary is criminalizing human rights activism.

Sotoudeh is one of a number of human rights advocates targeted in a government crackdown since the beginning of 2018. On June 13, authorities arrested Sotoudeh to serve a five-year sentence issued against her in absentia on September 3, 2016. She was arrested shortly after she filed a case on behalf of a woman who was arrested for removing her headscarf. The authorities had neither previously informed Sotoudeh about nor publicly announced the 2016 conviction or sentence. Her lawyer told Human Rights Watch on August 16 that she was told after her arrest that the authorities have opened two new cases against Sotoudeh for her human rights work.

“Especially when it comes to cases of human rights defenders like Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iranian authorities blatantly disregard due process rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Apparently what authorities fear greatly is advocating respect for human rights.”

The authorities should immediately release anyone detained for their human rights work, which appears to include Sotoudeh as well as another activist, Narges Mohammadi, who was sentenced on similar charges in 2015.

Revolutionary courts in Tehran do not typically hand over copies of the verdicts they issue against activists, but Human Rights Watch has reviewed notes from the verdict Branch 28 of Tehran’s revolutionary court issued against Sotoudeh, which indicate that she was sentenced solely based on her human rights activism. The verdict says, citing Intelligence Ministry reporting, that she carried out:

… activities against national security in collaboration with domestic and foreign anti-revolutionary elements, including [by] participating in meetings with foreign diplomats suspected of having ties to intelligence services, and these meetings have taken place with a human rights cover to increase pressure of enemy governments [on Iran] and to condemn Iran as a human rights violators…

The verdict also cites her public support of the “illegal” group Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to reducing executions in Iran. The verdict claims that Sotoudeh’s support for this group reveals “her strategy in opposing the Islamic rulings and abolishing death penalty and Qisas,” which is a retributive punishment under Sharia law. The court sentenced Sotoudeh to five years in prison based on article 510 of the Islamic penal code that stats that “Anyone who intends to disrupt national security or aid the enemy … or assists in hiding spies … shall be sentenced from six months to three years’ imprisonment.” The sentence exceeds the maximum penalty, although this charge was not cited in the indictment, as required under Iran’s criminal procedure law. The indictment was based on articles 500 and 610 of the penal code, for propaganda against the state and assembly and collusion to act against national security.

Payam Derafshan, Sotoudeh’s lawyer, said that Branch 7 of the Tehran prosecutor’s office summoned Sotoudeh after her arrest to inform her that the prosecutor in Kashan had filed a complaint against her for defending Shaparak Shajarizadeh, who faces charges for taking off her headscarf off in public in January to protest compulsory hijab laws. She was told she could be released on a 650 million Iranian toman bond (US$135,000) in that case. But Sotoudeh refused to pay the bond because she was targeted for her work as a lawyer, her lawyer said.

Soon afterward, Branch 2 of the Tehran prosecutor’s office also charged her for membership in the anti-death penalty group and issued a temporary arrest warrant. “Basically, they have come after Sotoudeh with three cases,” Derafshan said.

Sotoudeh’s lawyers also saw a January 21 letter in Sotoudeh’s dossier from the Intelligence Ministry’s office of judicial laws. The letter asked the prosecutor’s office to carry out Sotoudeh’s sentence because she had resumed her “soft war against the country and has created propaganda material for foreign media with her continuous acts against national security, propaganda activities, portraying the government in a negative light, and publishing false information.”

The arrest and new charges against Sotoudeh are among a number of actions in recent months targeting of human rights defenders and activists: In one recent case, on August 1, Intelligence Ministry authorities arrested Farhad Meysami, a human rights defender, for protesting compulsory hijab laws.

On June 28, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a parliament member from Tehran, tweeted that courts reportedly based their recent verdicts and sentences against student activists on Intelligence Ministry officials’ reports and interrogations.

The government has taken similar actions against human rights defenders before. On May 5, 2015, authorities arrested Mohammadi, a prominent human rights defender, after she met with Catherine Ashton, the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy at the time. The government claimed that she needed to finish serving a six-year prison sentence handed down in 2010.

In May 2016, a revolutionary court sentenced Mohammadi to one year in prison for “propaganda against the state,” five years for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” and 10 years for “establishing the illegal anti-death penalty group.” Under article 134 of the Islamic Penal Code, she would serve the longest prison sentence of these, meaning she has to serve 10 years. Mohammadi suffers from a serious neurological disease, and she was transferred to the hospital on August 13 after she suffered a concussion in prison, according to Reza Khandan, Sotoudeh’s husband, who learned about the incident during a visit with Sotoudeh in prison.

On August 4, authorities granted Abdolfattah Soltani, a prominent human rights lawyer who had been imprisoned since 2011, a temporary release after his 27-year-old daughter Homa passed away unexpectedly. According to Maedeh, Soltani’s daughter, he has been eligible for early release since 2014, but judicial authorities told Soltani family that the Ministry of Intelligence opposed his release.

“The Ministry of Intelligence under President Rouhani has tried to present itself to Iranians as a more ‘lenient’ security agency, but like the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization it is an integral part of the state’s repressive crackdown against human rights defenders,” Whitson added.

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