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LONDON, Mar 5 2011 (IPS) - Not so long ago, my colleague Nasrin Sotoudeh was the lawyer that so many of us human rights defenders in Iran called when our own government harassed us or put one of us, or a family member, in jail.

Sadly, it is now Nasrin who is in jail.

Her crime? The government’s accusations against her include acting contrary to ‘national security’, ‘propaganda against the state’ and ‘membership’ in the Defender of Human Rights Centre, an organisation I founded in 2001. The government has also accused her of failing to wear a hijab, the traditional Islamic covering for women. For just a few of these trumped up charges she was recently sentenced to 11 years in jail and is now banned from practising law for 20 years.

Unfortunately, Nasrin is not alone. This courageous 45-year-old mother of two young children is one of many in Iran who are targeted -and punished- for speaking up for the rights of others.

As we know from the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani -an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for allegedly committing adultery- women are all too frequently on the receiving end of the Iranian regime’s wrath. But what makes Nasrin’s case especially poignant is that it raises a fundamental question about Iran’s future.

If the Iranian regime is failing to protect the human rights of its own citizens, who can take on this fight? And if the people who come to the defense of those whose human rights are being flagrantly violated are forbidden from doing their jobs, who will ultimately ensure that such values as equality and justice are upheld in Iran?

Iranian authorities arrested Nasrin at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison last September during one of her routine visits to a client who is a political prisoner. Since then, Nasrin has spent most of her time in solitary confinement.

To protest her illegal arrest, Nasrin has gone on several hunger strikes, in one instance, refusing to drink water. Iranian officials have denied her access to a lawyer, and for the first month of her detainment she was not allowed to talk to her family even on the phone. At one point, authorities detained Nasrin’s husband for speaking publicly about his wife’s case.

Why is the Iranian government so afraid of Nasrin?

The government is clearly frustrated that an Iranian woman’s work is shining a light on the deplorable human rights situation in Iran. The other reason is that Nasrin is fearless in taking on tough cases that other lawyers would carefully avoid, and for that she earned respect around the globe. She took on the case of journalist Isa Saharkhiz, and also that of Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, the leader of the banned Democratic Front of Iran. She also took on the high-profile case of Zahra Bahrami, a Dutch-Iranian who was arrested for participating in post-election demonstrations in 2009. Zahra was denied her right to an appeal. Despite the intervention of Dutch authorities and a call by the European Union not to, Zahra was executed without warning on January 29.

Nasrin was my lawyer in a complaint I filed against Kayhan, a conservative newspaper under the control of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and she also defended me when Iranian authorities seized my assets in 2009. Equally brave, Nasrin has also taken on cases involving juvenile executions. Iran is one of the few countries in the world that still puts children to death.

A few days before her arrest, Iranian officials searched Nasrin’s house. Later, authorities summoned Nasrin to the tax office and froze her assets. But this action did not succeed in scaring her. While she was at the tax office, Nasrin realised that the government was carrying out similar ‘investigations’ of at least 30 other lawyers in Iran, and she bravely provided that information to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged Iranian authorities to review Nasrin’s case and expedite her release, and various international human rights groups around the world -including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch-have called for Nasrin’s release. Her case, among others, is making Iran’s failure to uphold basic human rights increasingly obvious.

This is why some countries are currently pushing for a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that would create a mandate on Iran, with an independent Special Rapporteur to carry out an investigation into the many human rights abuses there. Such a push is encouraging, but it will still take a few more countries to reach a majority within the Council.

If Iran jails those who are defending human rights, we need to step up efforts to ensure that justice and equality are upheld there. On this International Women’s Day, such a concrete international action to let the people of Iran know that the world cares about their human rights would be, in my mind, the best way to honour my colleague Nasrin.

We must not let her voice be silenced. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She is the co-founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a global women’s rights organisation that also includes five of her sister Nobel Peace Laureates.

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