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Iranian Lawyers Join Global Backlash to Iran's Sentencing of Rights Defender

Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh appears in this undated photo.
Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh appears in this undated photo.

A group of Iranian lawyers has added its voice to international criticism of Tehran for sentencing a female colleague to additional years in prison in relation to her work in defending Iranian rights activists.

In an open letter to the Iranian people dated Tuesday and sent by one of the authors to VOA Persian, the group of 16 lawyers said the multiyear sentencing of lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, announced by Iranian state media Monday, violates the Iranian constitution's commitments to human rights and fair trials.

"It is a source of shame and shows a lack of tolerance in dealing with lawyers who are critical of the system, a sign of the weakness of the judiciary," said the letter, also published online by Iran's Human Rights Activist News Agency.

"We praise Sotoudeh's integrity, passion and independence in fighting for justice and human rights, and call for her unjust sentence to be overturned," added the lawyers.

FILE - Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and her husband, Reza Khandan, are seen in this undated photo.
FILE - Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and her husband, Reza Khandan, are seen in this undated photo.

Sotoudeh was arrested at her home last June after she defended women detained earlier in the year for staging street protests against Iran's compulsory hijab law. In reports published Monday, Iranian state media quoted judge Mohammad Moghiseh as saying Sotoudeh was sentenced to seven years in prison: five years for "crimes against national security" and two years for "insulting" Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

At the time of her 2018 arrest, Iranian authorities informed Sotoudeh that she also had been found guilty in absentia of espionage and sentenced to five years in prison in that case.

London-based rights group Amnesty International posted a Monday report saying authorities at Tehran's Evin prison, where Sotoudeh is jailed, informed her this week that her new sentence was 33 years and 148 lashes for a case involving seven security-related offenses.

Amnesty said it was not clear if Moghiseh's announcement of a seven-year prison term for Sotoudeh was related to the case involving the seven charges. "If [Moghiseh's] report was referring to the same case, Amnesty International cannot currently explain why the information appears to contradict that provided to Sotoudeh by the office for the implementation of sentences in Evin prison," the group said.

In a Facebook post Monday, Sotoudeh's husband Reza Khandan wrote that his wife has been sentenced to a total of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes, with five years for a first case and 33 years for the second. His reference to a "first case" appeared to match the five-year sentence for espionage, handed down to Sotoudeh in absentia last year. Khandan told the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) that he got the figures from Sotoudeh in a phone call that lasted only a few minutes without time to get into details.

International backlash

U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Palladino criticized the latest sentencing of Sotoudeh, sarcastically asking Khamenei whether it marks the "new era of justice" that he talks about.

In a Tuesday statement, the EU described Sotoudeh's sentencing as a "worrying development."

"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," an EU spokesperson said. "The European Union also expects Iran to ensure that both Khandan and Sotoudeh's right to appeal their sentences is protected."

Amnesty denounced Sotoudeh's sentencing in stronger terms.

"It is absolutely shocking that Sotoudeh is facing nearly four decades in jail and 148 lashes for her peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting against Iran's degrading forced hijab [veiling] laws," said Philip Luther, the group's Middle East research director. "Sotoudeh must be released immediately and unconditionally and this obscene sentence quashed without delay."

There was no immediate response by the Iranian government to the international backlash against Sotoudeh's new sentence. Sotoudeh previously served three years in prison from 2010 to 2013 for security-related charges relating to her human rights work, which has won her several international accolades.

This article originated in VOA's Persian Service. Shahram Bahraminejad contributed from Washington.

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