The detention of Iranian human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, pictured… (Newsha Tavakolian / Polaris,…)
Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — When Iranian activist-lawyer Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, human rights activists cheered. Here was a chance for Iranians to rally around a figure for political change and reform much as Poles rallied around Lech Walesa and Burmese around Aung San Suu Kyi, both fellow laureates.
Eight years later, the small cadre of attorneys close to Ebadi and the organization she started with her prize money, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, are either in jail or threatened with legal action. The center has been outlawed.
Activists decry the detentions as a vengeful crackdown by government hard-liners who were incensed by Ebadi's Nobel prize. But some human rights lawyers criticize their peers, saying the attorneys sometimes overlook clients' best interests in their determination to take a stand.
Few of the lawyers have escaped the attention of the government. For the last two years, Ebadi has been in exile. Another human rights lawyer, Abdolfattah Soltani, has been in and out of prison for months since a crackdown against civil liberties intensified in the wake of the country's disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Yet another lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, has waged prison hunger strikes between sporadic court appearances. Mohammad Seifzadeh, who once represented Ebadi in court, has been in prison since April, facing a nine-year sentence.
This month, when Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Court sentenced prominent human rights activist Mohammad-Ali Dadkhah to five lashes and nine years in prison and barred him from practicing law for the next 10 years, few in the Islamic Republic even blinked.
Dadkhah, who was found guilty of spreading "propaganda against the regime" and plotting a "soft revolution," was typically defiant about the sentence.
"Even if I am in jail, I will cheerfully advocate human rights, and those who put me in jail will be unhappy," he said in an interview.
After Sotoudeh was imprisoned, Britain's ambassador to Iran, Simon Gass, wrote an article for the embassy's website in which he criticized Iran's human rights record and called for Sotoudeh's release, saying her "real crime" was "doing her job courageously and highlighting injustices that the Iranian regime would prefer stayed hidden." In a Persian New Year address in March, President Obama called on Iranians to release her from jail.
Activists say Iran's hard-liners have made good on private vows to make both the West and Ebadi's circle pay for the Nobel, the first given to a Muslim woman or to an Iranian. They wanted to discourage those within Iran's intelligentsia from pursuing Ebadi's course, and to some extent they have succeeded. There appears to be no rush of lawyers taking the place of those jailed.
Some activists remain more optimistic, disagreeing that hard-liners had managed to scare lawyers away from representing controversial human rights cases.
"The center has succeeded in making defending human rights a common cause for all social groups, regardless of whether they are radical, Islamic, fundamentalist or reformist," said Soltani, who is out of prison and is no longer facing serious charges. "We are ready to pay the price for practicing law to defend human rights, no matter how high the price is."
But some lawyers believe that human rights defenders have played into the hands of the regime.
A well-known human rights defense lawyer who asked to remain anonymous says that his colleagues were not prudent or discreet enough given the climate in Iran over the last 10 years.
"In our job, when we practice law and defend our clients, our top priority is to save them from the death penalty and get a reduction of the sentence," said the lawyer, who did not want to be quoted criticizing his colleagues. "We want to save our clients from the gallows. So it is not a matter of honor to speak like colonels in war fronts with Voice of America or BBC Persian, making our clients' situation worse."
He added: "It is not an honor to get yourself in jail. Our job as lawyers is to reduce the jail sentence of our clients. When we as defense lawyers receive applause from the USA and the European Union and their media, it is counterproductive for our clients.
"We are not here to look like heroes," he said. "We are here to help human rights in an efficient way."
Increasingly, the lawyers complain that they are being subjected to the same types of human rights violations they're fighting. Soltani's wife, Masoumeh Dehghan, received an official notification this month summoning her to the magistrate's office inside Tehran's menacing Evin Prison to clarify "some points," Soltani recalled.
As soon as she arrived, she was hustled into jail and held for five days, in what Soltani believes was an attempt to show him how far authorities were willing to go to shut him up.