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The Night I Stood In For An Iranian Hero

Nazila Ghanea (far right) accepts the Spanish Bar Association's Human Rights Award on behalf of Nasrin Sotoudeh. Another honoree, Mohammad Mostafaei, is second from the right.
Nazila Ghanea (far right) accepts the Spanish Bar Association's Human Rights Award on behalf of Nasrin Sotoudeh. Another honoree, Mohammad Mostafaei, is second from the right.
It is not the kind of invitation academics routinely receive. But back in October I was invited to stand in for Nasrin Sotoudeh -- who at that time had already been incarcerated for over a month in solitary confinement -- at a ceremony honoring her with a human rights award.

For that fearless human rights defender, this award was not a first. She was targeted by the Iranian authorities, in fact, two years ago precisely because of another such honor. On December 10, 2008, as she was heading for Italy to receive the International Human Rights Prize from Human Rights International, Iranian authorities was informed that she was banned from leaving the country.

Two years on, the annual conference of Spanish Bar Associations chose to confer its Human Rights Award to Iranian human rights defenders Nasrin Sotoudeh, Javid Houtan Kian, and Mohammad Mostafaei. Only Mostafaei was able to receive his prize in person, and I was approached to receive Sotoudeh’s prize.

The decision to recognize all three of them was highly commendable and, with the Spanish Bar Association's decision to focus their seminar earlier that day on women and human rights, their choice of Sotoudeh was impeccable.

Furthermore, the United Nations dedicated this year's Human Rights Day -- December 10 -- to human rights defenders working to end discrimination. Sotoudeh certainly qualifies for that. In a country gaining renown for its ever-proliferating victims of discrimination -- from journalists, to trade union activists, juvenile offenders, promoters of women’s rights, religious and ethnic minorities, those engaged in peaceful protest and mere students -- Sotoudeh's career as a lawyer to date has seen her defend all of these and more.

Fearless Advocate

I started my remarks with "I'm not Nasrin Sotoudeh." And that in itself nearly brought me to tears. Here I was, in the beautiful and historical Casino de Madrid, in front of some 700 people, on the second anniversary of Sotoudeh being banned from leaving Iran, and I was overcome with the feeling that she should be here to see the people of the world recognize her selfless bravery.

Though only a few people in that majestic hall had even been to a prison, and fewer still had themselves been imprisoned, we nonetheless felt moved to honor a woman who had put her calling and professionalism before her own safety. And who was now paying a very high price indeed for standing up for the rights of her fellow human beings.

I too am an Iranian woman, I too am the mother of two young children, and I too have dedicated my life to the field of human rights law. But, as I impressed on the audience that night, I have nothing else in common with this heroic woman. She is a lawyer who fearlessly championed the rights of all others, took cases no one else would touch -- and she did so with no consideration for the repercussions on herself. She had been warned time and again that the authorities were not pleased with her tireless devotion and professionalism. Yet she had soldiered on.

Over the years, she stood up for those denied due process, those falsely charged, those threatened and denied prisoners' rights. And now she is suffering all these indignities and more.

Feeling Sotoudeh's Bravery

How can we live in a world where one of the best of us, Nasrin Sotoudeh, is being held in intolerable and inhumane conditions, being threatened with a harsher sentence if she does not change her lawyers (as, in turn, her lawyers were threatened to drop her case)? How can we bear to witness to her being given false promises of release before those hopes are dashed, knowing that she is denied the family visits guaranteed to her by Iranian law? She even denied leave to attend her father’s funeral.

Imprisoned on September 4, 2010, and outrageously charged with acting against national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran, she was spending her 98th night in solitary confinement in the infamous and illegal Section 209 of Evin prison as we honored her in Madrid that night.

As Nasrin Sotoudeh's family suffered another day without a mother, a wife, and a daughter, numerous human rights victims in Iran were suffering another day without a lawyer, without representation and without hope.

Dignitaries, senior lawyers, media professionals and civil-society activists present imagined Nasrin Sotoudeh's pain that night. We resolved to stand up for the human rights defender who had not closed her door to anybody. And we called for an immediate end to the ill treatment against her and her unconditional release.

Now, about two weeks after that memorable evening in Madrid, Sotoudeh remains in prison on a dry hunger strike (no water). Concerns for her survival mount by the day, as this is her third hunger strike and the terrible conditions are taking their toll on her health. On December 20, Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and six of her colleagues -- Khadijeh Mogaddam, Mansoureh Shojaee, Parvin Ardalan, Shadi Sadr, Asieh Amini, Mahbubeh Abbasgholizadeh -- launched a sit-in outside the UN building in Geneva; they vowed to remain there until Sotoudeh was released.

I often think back on that night when I stood in for a hero I had never met. And, for a moment, I felt her bravery.

Nazila Ghanea teaches International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL