Prominent Iranian human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh has been on a hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin prison for more than three weeks to protest the risk that political prisoners in Iran face amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Sotoudeh, who launched her hunger strike on August 11, said she will refuse to eat to secure the release of political prisoners who have not been included in temporary prison leaves granted to tens of thousands of detainees, according to Iranian authorities, to prevent the spread of the virus in the country’s overcrowded prisons.
Sotoudeh, co-winner of the European Parliament’s 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, has been surviving on water, tea, sugar, and salt, amid concerns over her health, her husband told RFE/RL on September 4.
“Today is Nasrin’s 25th day of the hunger strike,” her husband, Reza Khandand, said, adding that her health had deteriorated in recent days.
“Her general condition, her sugar [level], her blood pressure has been in fluctuation. She sometimes feels so weak that she is not able to move,” he said.
Khandan said that at one point in mid-August Sotoudeh’s condition became critical and she had to be taken to Evin prison’s health clinic even though, he said, she had resisted going to the clinic due to concerns over the coronavirus.
The Washington-based Boroumand Foundation, which documents human rights violations in Iran, said in a September 2 report that COVID-19 had spread widely in Iranian prisons where, it said, soap and disinfectant are scarce and overcrowding makes social distancing difficult.
The pandemic has killed more than 22,000 Iranians and infected over 380,000, according to official figures. Real numbers are believed to be significantly higher.
Before her arrest in 2018, the outspoken mother of two defended critics of the Iranian establishment, activists, members of the Baha’i community, juvenile offenders on death row, and others, including most recently women detained for protesting the compulsory wearing of the hijab.
Sotoudeh, 58, was sentenced in 2019 to a total of 38 1/2 years in prison and 148 lashes for her work.
She must serve 12 years of her sentence to become eligible for parole.
The widely respected lawyer was also jailed from 2010 to 2013 over her defense of sensitive political cases. In 2015, she protested for several weeks to be allowed to continue practicing law.
Despite her imprisonment, Sotoudeh has remained outspoken. She also went on a hunger strike in March to protest prison conditions.
Her defiance appears to have angered the Iranian authorities, who have pressured her by freezing her bank account in May and detaining her 20-year-old daughter, Mehraveh, for several hours on August 18 for the alleged “insult and assault” of a prison guard, in an apparent move to force Sotoudeh to end her hunger strike.
Khandan said Mehraveh’s detention is one reason why Sotoudeh decided to prolong her hunger strike. “What they did to the child of a prisoner is [beyond belief],” he said.
Khandan said that neither he nor his family had told her to end her hunger strike. “We haven’t made such a demand, we prefer that she makes her own decision.”
Many Iranians have taken to social media in past days to express concern over the health of Sotoudeh and call for her release.
On September 2, the German Judges Association (DRB) awarded its Human Rights Prize to Sotoudeh to highlight her fate.
“Nasrin Sotoudeh has become a symbol of the Iranian civil rights movement through her courage and tireless commitment to human rights and the rule of law,” the DRB said in a statement.
On August 28, PEN America called for her immediate release and for “an end to judicial and legal harassment of her and her family.”
Sotoudeh “is now facing the direst of consequences for her activism and expression. Her life hangs in the balance,” PEN America Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs Karin Deutsch Karlekar said.
On August 14, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over Sotoudeh’s well-being and called for her release and “all political prisoners unjustly detained in Iran.”
Iran has in recent years intensified its pressure on human rights lawyers by sentencing them to long prison terms for their defense of political prisoners and silence those pushing for human rights.