Iranian human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh is temporarily home from prison and speaking about her experiences as a political prisoner.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is home from prison on temporary medical leave. That is a simple thing to write, but there is so much emotion, strength, sacrifice, vision and history involved. And so much at stake in what will come next.
The internationally acclaimed Iranian human rights attorney was arrested in June 2018 because of her work representing opposition activists, religious minorities and women who publicly protested Iran’s mandatory hijab law. Nasrin was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes on charges that included “inciting corruption and prostitution,” “disrupting public order,” “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” She had previously been imprisoned from 2010 to 2013 on similar charges—a heavy price to pay for loving one’s country.
Nelson Mandela said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” The Iranian government’s persecution of Sotoudeh reflects a systemic disregard for the needs, rights and dignity of its citizens.
In August 2020, Nasrin launched a 46-day hunger strike in Evin Prison that brought global attention to poor health conditions in Iranian prisons. She was punished for her protest by being transferred, despite a serious heart condition, to an overcrowded windowless cell in the notoriously unsanitary Qarchak Women’s Prison.
Unsurprisingly, she quickly caught a severe case of COVID-19. She was briefly released in January for an overdue angioplasty, but on the day she was abruptly forced to return to prison, she was also informed the authorities had frozen her family’s bank accounts.
Now Nasrin is briefly back home with her husband Reza Khandan, their daughter Mehraveh, and their son Nima. They each live with the fear and uncertainty that the judicial system uses to psychologically break prisoners and their families. However, this is a family that will not be broken.
A few days after her homecoming, my wife Marcia Ross and I talked with Nasrin and Reza, translated by our mutual friend, writer Amir Soltani. We produced the documentary Nasrin, streaming on Hulu, and it has been a great life-changing privilege to become long-distance friends with this remarkable couple.
Conversations with Nasrin and Reza, even when they are facing unimaginable pressure, always involve laughter, updates on our children, seemingly small details of daily life and incredibly thoughtful stories from the front lines in the struggle for human rights. This time, Nasrin seemed a bit weighted with worry, but eager to express her joy to be close to those she loves.
After admiring a display of vegetables and flowers from Marcia’s garden, Nasrin spoke about her own love of the outdoors. She and Reza used to go hiking and horseback riding, and the family has often vacationed by the Caspian Sea, although her time in prison has cost her six summers with her children.
The subject then turned to Qarchak Prison.
“Take whatever rumors you have heard about this place and still it cannot reflect the agony and trauma buried there. The air is filled with the stench of the sewer system. The water is so salty it’s almost undrinkable,” said Nasrin. “The assault on the spirit and psyche of women prisoners is relentless. For example, this summer, with temperatures at Qarchak climbing as high as 47 degrees Celsius [116 degrees Fahrenheit], women are banned from wearing short sleeve shirts and must be fully veiled when walking through the corridors. Political prisoners resist these orders and create disturbances when they can.”
“It’s very difficult to be there,” she continued, “but I carry a sense of beauty that is very sustaining from making new friends and having an opportunity to continue my work. For instance, an hour before leaving I was advising a particular prisoner about her legal case. I can help these women appeal for their rights and freedom. That is deeply rewarding.”
“That’s such a Nasrin thing to find meaning and purpose and connection and community in a situation that would overwhelm and destroy someone else,” Marcia later said.
Reza is also no stranger to prison. Although he has a six-year prison sentence hanging over his head that could lead to his incarceration at any time, he has been a consistent advocate for his wife and other at-risk activists. He has been especially vocal about the horrendous conditions in Qarchak Prison.
Nasrin turns most questions about herself into a chance to mention someone else in need. When I asked about how she is doing, she spoke of her friend of Giti Pourfazel, a 78-year-old retired lawyer who was arrested in 2019 for criticizing the Supreme Leader and Iran’s “gender apartheid.”
Mohammad Reza Ali Payam, a 64-year-old poet and satirist known to his readers as Haloo, had hosted Nasrin at a 2013 poetry reading. In 2015 he was arrested, beaten and imprisoned for “propaganda against the regime,” “insulting sanctities” and “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic and government officials.”
Nasrin also called for the release of doctor, publisher and activist Farhad Meysami. Despite suffering a life-threatening case of coronavirus in Evin Prison, he has been imprisoned for three years without an opportunity for outside medical care. Meysami is the only man who is now held for advancing women’s rights and opposing the mandatory hijab—the same charges that were leveled against Reza.
In a previous virtual visit with Reza, we learned that Nasrin was reading a biography of Vaclav Havel. I shared this quote from Havel, but admitted I’m not sure I agree: “Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred.” In this conversation I mentioned my difficulty dealing with anger about American politicians who deny climate change, the 2020 election results, racial and gender oppression, income inequality … there’s a long list. I asked Nasrin and Reza if they have similar feelings, and if so, how they deal with them.
“The difference is you have very high expectations for your system of government. You expect a degree of truth and sincerity and thus some positive change. We don’t have the same expectations,” said Reza. “For you, the change that represents your interests is behind you. So, the non-performance drives you crazy and makes you aggrieved. In our case, we are hoping for a better future that can protect us. This hope that we hold out controls and checks our anger.”
“Jeff, I do get angry about injustice in Iran. While I am in prison, I often get angry with the prison officials about how they treat my fellow inmates, and I show it,” said Nasrin. “What I typically do is I write them a letter and then I have a meeting with them, but if there is no response, I can get loud. However, screaming and anger has an effect on us as much as it does on others.”
There is an 11-and-a-half-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Tehran, and I always worry keeping Nasrin and Reza up late. They both need their rest, and time to heal and renew with their family. We closed by talking about how wonderful it would be to have a meal together. Although nothing can compare to Persian hospitality, Marcia and I invited them, as we have many times before, to someday come stay in our home.
“We too look forward to such better days and better relations between Iran and America so that we can host you in our humble abode,” said Nasrin with a smile and a wave.
Inshallah. (God willing!)