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Fears grow for Iranian prisoner of conscience

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The hunger strike of  imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh enters its eighth week on today amid growing concerns about her imminent hospitalisation.

Iranian authorities arrested Sotoudeh in September 2010 for allegedly conspiring to threaten state security and spread anti-regime propaganda.

Sotoudeh was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment and banned from practicing law for 10 years.

She is being held currently in Ward 209 of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.

Reserved for political prisoners, the Ward is outside judicial jurisdiction which enables harsh conditions within to remain unchallenged by the judiciary.

Cells in Ward 209 do not have beds and there is no heating to protect from the freezing temperatures of a Tehrani winter.

If these physical conditions weren’t enough to quash the spirit, these political prisoners are also subject to physical violence from prison guards. In a recent letter to from the female political prisoners to the head of Evin Prison (co-signed by Nasrin Sotoudeh), they complain about, ‘the brutal behaviour by some agents during the bodily searches of the female prisoners [that] cannot and will not be forgiven, for this violent and obvious act of aggression and desecration is so reprehensible that putting pen to paper to describe it renders one ashamed and disgraced.’

Since her arrival at Evin Prison, Sotoudeh, a mother of two, has served 18 months without personal phone calls, as well as being held in solitary confinement for long periods of her internment. She has also suffered a reversal of her visitation rights for refusing to wear the chador, a decision which she explained to her children thus: ‘…I did not act on the basis of resistance. I acted to uphold the laws in its entirety, and that is why I refused to wear the chador. I did not want my family, particularly my young children, to realise the pressures and humiliation [in prison] by seeing their mother – who does not usually wear the chador – under forced cover.’

She was distinguished by the international community for her representation of opposition activists following the disputed 2009 presidential elections, as well as her defense of prisoners of conscience and those facing the death penalty for crimes committed while they were juveniles. Sotoudeh, along with film director Jafar Panahi, were recently awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The award, reserved to honour those who have dedicated their lives to the preservation of human rights and freedom of thought, was previously won by Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, has made the egregious nature of these allegations very clear to the international media: ‘The world should know that all she has done to earn this punishment is support her clients. Even when she was threatened with arrest, she continued to support her clients with bravery and determination. The world must support her now.’

WVoN reported last year that International Human Rights Day, which coincided with the launch of the Free Sotoudeh Project, had been used to raise international awareness about her imprisonment and, it had been hoped, put pressure on the Iranian authorities for her release.

It seems, however, that the authorities have only increased their pressure on Sotoudeh, now fabricating a case against her husband and 12 year old daughter which embargoes them from international travel. It is this latest development, reported by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, that triggered Sotoudeh’s latest hunger strike and which she refuses to break until her daughter’s travel ban is lifted.

For the voiceless female prisoners of Evin Prison, hunger striking is a grimly common way of life. How else can they ensure that their stories of injustice are heard outside Ward 209?

This is Nasrin Sotoudeh’s fourth time; the effects on her health can only be imagined.

Since her hunger strike began on 17 October, her weight has so far dropped to a chilling 43kg (94.7lbs) and she is understood to have been in and out of the prison infirmary. Khandan told Reuters that he was ‘seriously concerned about her health’ and he expected her imminent admission to hospital after discovering that her body had now begun to reject fluids.
Safe World for Women are petitioning the UN Special Rapporteur to take action, you can add your name here.

Amnesty International is lobbying the Iranian authorities.   Email the Supreme Leader of Iran to call for Nasrin Sotoudeh’s release here.

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