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HRW Says Iran Judiciary 'Criminalizing Rights Activism'

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Iran's authorities to immediately release prominent lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, saying her arrest and the new charges against her reveal the "grave degree the Iranian judiciary is criminalizing human rights activism."

“Especially when it comes to cases of human rights defenders like Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iranian authorities blatantly disregard due process rights,” HRW Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson said in an August 17 statement. “Apparently what authorities fear greatly is advocating respect for human rights.”

Authorities arrested Sotoudeh in June to serve a five-year sentence issued against her in absentia in September 2016 for allegedly carrying out “activities against national security in collaboration with domestic and foreign antirevolutionary elements,” HRW said. The verdict also cited her public support of Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to reducing executions in Iran.

The authorities had neither previously informed Sotoudeh about nor publicly announced the 2016 conviction or sentence.

Sotoudeh’s lawyer, Payam Derafshan, said last week that Tehran prosecutors informed her a complaint had been filed against her for defending a woman who faces charges for taking off her head scarf off in public in January to protest compulsory hijab laws.

Sotoudeh was also charged with membership in the Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty group.

Sotoudeh’s lawyers said they saw a January letter in Sotoudeh’s dossier from the Intelligence Ministry asking prosecutors to carry out her sentence because she has 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.”

Sotoudeh -- the co-winner of the European Parliament's 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought -- has denied all charges against her.

HRW said Iranian authorities have taken actions targeting human rights defenders and activists in recent months, citing the case of Farhad Meysami, a human rights defender who was arrested by Intelligence Ministry officials on August 1 for protesting compulsory hijab laws.

The Ministry of Intelligence under President Hassan Rohani “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 said.