Jailed lawyer awarded PEN prize

Nasrin Sotoudeh, 47, writer, lawyer, and women and children’s rights activist, has been awarded PEN’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

The award honours international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. Sotoudeh is currently in Tehran’s Evin Prison, serving an 11 year sentence for outspoken advocacy in defence of her clients, she was arrested after the June 2009 presidential elections. Sotoudeh gave interviews to the media and human rights organisations about her client’s cases, the charges against her include spreading lies about the regime, acting against national security, and cooperating with the Center for the Defenders of Human Rights. She has been banned from practicing law and traveling outside the country for 20 years, a term that begins after her release from prison.

“From the start, Nasrin Sotoudeh has insisted on voicing the unspoken realities of post-revolutionary Iran,” Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems said.

The struggles of women, the experiences of minors swept up in Iran’s judicial system, the aspirations of writers, journalists and ordinary Iranians to engage in free and open debate about their country’s future — Nasrin has risked her own freedom to make sure these are acknowledged in Iran. That they have been acknowledged by sending her to prison speaks volumes about the Iranian leadership; that she is a hero and an inspiration to millions of her countrymen says even more about the Iranian people.

Nasrin Sotoudeh began her activism in 1991 as the only female writer for the Nationalist-religious publication Daricheh Goftegoo. One of her first projects was to prepare a series of interviews, reports, and articles on Iranian women to mark International Women’s Day, all of which her editor refused to run.  After completing her Master’s Degree in International Law at Shahid Behshti University, Sotoudeh passed the bar exam in 1995 but was not permitted to practice law for another eight years. She therefore concentrated on journalism instead, writing for several reformist newspapers, including Jame’e. When she was finally granted a law license in 2003, she specialised in women’s and children’s rights while continuing to write articles addressing these issues, which she also discussed in a recent letter to her daughter.

“Nasrin Sotoudeh not only embodies the spirit of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, but also the spirit of this remarkable year,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center. “As a writer, as an activist, and as a lawyer she has dedicated herself to a simple and powerful idea: the principle that the rights guaranteed by law are absolute and shared equally by all. At a moment when women and men around the world are standing together peacefully to reclaim this most basic truth, she is in one of the world’s most infamous prisons, to the great shame of the Iranian government. In honoring her with this award, we stand with the millions of Iranians she has stood up for and inspired, and we urge individuals and governments around the world to join us in pressing for her immediate release.”

The Freedom to Write Award is an extension of PEN’s advocacy on behalf of the more than 900 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Forty-five women and men have received the award since 1987; 32 of the 36 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.