The heavy prison sentence for prominent Iranian human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh is yet another recent example of the country’s crackdown on critical voices.
For more than a year, a wave of protests throughout the country has been challenging the repressive Iranian government.
Protests are directed at the lack of political and social freedoms as well as poor economic conditions and corruption.
Numerous labour groups, including truck drivers, steel workers and teachers, are involved in the protests.
The Iran teachers’ association organised several strikes to protest against low wages and the imprisonment of colleagues.
The Iranian authorities have responded to these largely peaceful protests with violence, mass detentions and unfair trials.
Despite the intimidation, arrest and prosecution of activists, the protests continue. The authorities have sought to restrict independent reporting on protests, including blocking websites and targeting journalists with criminal charges.
“Authorities have sought to restrict independent reporting on protests, including blocking websites and targeting journalists with criminal charges”
Other means of intimidation include asset freezes, arbitrary arrests and surveillance measures.
Coinciding with the beginning of protests against the government’s economic policies at the end of 2017, dozens of young Iranian women began removing the hijab (headscarf) in public and posted images of themselves.
Many of them were arrested, while some have been sentenced to imprisonment simply for daring to defy the country’s abusive forced hijab laws.
Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested in June 2018, following her defence of women tried for disobeying the repressive hijab laws.
Subsequently, she was informed that she had to serve a five-year prison sentence that she had received some years earlier but had not been notified of.
In March 2019, Sotoudeh was given an additional sentence of at least seven years of imprisonment in another trial also related to her peaceful human rights work.
In addition, she was sentenced to corporal punishment of 148 lashes.
For her commitment and work for human rights, Nasrin Sotoudeh received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012.
In December 2018 and in March 2019, the European Parliament adopted resolutions on the human rights situation in Iran.
Parliamentarians called on the Iranian authorities to release Nasrin Sotoudeh and all other human rights defenders detained and sentenced for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including prisoners of conscience, women’s rights campaigners, environmentalists, trade unionists and activists campaigning against the death penalty.
While the overall human rights situation in Iran remains grim, there has been modest progress in one area of concern that has also been regularly addressed by EU representatives - namely the death penalty.
In 2018, the reported number of executions, at 225, was down from more than 500 in the previous year.
This was largely due to an amendment to Iran’s drug law which the EU had been calling for.
Hence the European Parliament rightly calls for exploring “the possibility of establishing a formal human rights dialogue.”
Small steps in progress can save lives.
However, to fundamentally improve the human rights situation in Iran much more needs to happen.
Europe has to sustain the pressure.