• October 17, 2011 4:25 PM
  • - General

Nasrin Sotoudeh is PEN Canada Empty Chair, One Humanity winner at 32nd International Festival of Authors

TORONTO, Oct. 17, 2011 /CNW/ - Nasrin Sotoudeh, an  Iranian human rights lawyer known for her outspoken advocacy of women's  and children's rights, is PEN Canada's  Empty Chair for the 32nd International Festival of Authors (IFOA 32). Sotoudeh will also receive PEN Canada's One Humanity Award, given to a writer whose work "transcends the boundaries of national divides and inspires connections across cultures." The award, valued at $5,000,  will be given, in absentia, at PEN Canada's  benefit at the IFOA on Oct, 19.  Soheil Parsa, writer, actor and artistic director of the Modern Times Stage Company will accept the award on Sotoudeh's behalf.

Now in its 17th year at the IFOA, the Empty Chair is used to highlight the case of a writer who is not permitted to travel freely or to appear at literary festivals around the world.  Previous  IFOA Empty Chairs include the Nigerian activist Ken Saro Wiwa, Turkish publisher Hrant Dink, and the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, 48, is currently serving a six year sentence in Evin prison for "propaganda against the regime" and "acting against national security." Her arrest, in September 2010, and subsequent trial are believed to be linked to her courageous defence of clients arrested after Iran's June 2009 presidential elections, which included interviews to several human rights organizations and media about their cases. Sotoudeh was originally sentenced to 11 years in prison but the sentence was commuted in mid-September.

When Sotoudeh received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in April 2011, PEN American President Kwame Anthony Appiah noted that, "[a]s a writer, as an activist, and as a lawyer she has dedicated herself to a simple and powerful idea: the principle that the rights guaranteed by law are absolute and shared equally by all."


BACKGROUND: Nasrin Sotoudeh Langroudi was born in Tehran in 1963, and raised in a devout middle class family. After graduating from high school she enrolled in Shahid Beheshti University where she completed a master's degree in international law at in 1989.  While at university she took an interest in the reformist politics of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition (NRC) which opposed the Shah and formed part of the government after the 1979 Revolution.

In 1991, Sotoudeh and her associates  launched Daricheh Goftegoo (Conversation Hatch), a popular current affairs magazine that opposed hardline political views and addressed a wide range of previously taboo subjects from a secular point of view. At Daricheh, Sotoudeh met her future husband, Reza Khandan. They were married in 1994 and have two children.  In 1991 Sotoudeh compiled a collection of essays on women's and children's rights by some of Iran's leading legal scholars - including Shirin Ebadi the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate. Daricheh's editor decided to forgo publication but the disappointment only redoubled Sotoudeh's commitment to both causes. Years later, following the 1997 election of President Khatami, Sotoudeh became one of Iran's most outspoken advocates for women's and children's rights, writing about them in a number of widely read publications. 

Sotoudeh passed Iran's bar exam in 1995, but had to wait eight years before being granted a licence to practice law, reportedly because of the authorities' concerns about her political sympathies. During the 1990s, when government critics were routinely summoned for questioning by The Ministry of Intelligence, Sotoudeh published Political Offense, an influential pamphlet that set out the rights of political detainees and prisoners and underscored the Constitution of Iran's guarantees that political dissidents would be tried in open courts and by impartial juries.

When Sotoudeh received her license to practice law in 2003 she joined Ebadi's Center for the Defense of Human Rights and represented several political prisoners pro bono. Sotoudeh also joined the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Children and sat on its Board of Directors. Sotoudeh was an early signatory to the Campaign for One Million Signatures (CFOMS), which sought to abolish laws that discriminated against Iranian women, and she defended several members of CFOMS after they were arrested. Sotoudeh was briefly arrested in June 2008, shortly before attending an event to mark a national day of solidarity for Iranian women. After her release, one day later, she defended several activists who had also been arrested.

On September 4, 2010, Sotoudeh was arrested after being summoned to the special court in Evin prison to answer charges of "propaganda against the state." The arrest followed a raid on her home and office by security officers, who confiscated files and documents. Sotoudeh's lawyer was not allowed to represent her in court or accompany her during questioning. Sotoudeh received an 11-year sentence from Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court on January 9, 2011. She was also banned from practicing law and from leaving the country for 20 years. The sentence comprises one year imprisonment for "propaganda against the regime," and a total of 10 years for the two charges of "acting against national security" and "violating the Islamic dress code (Hijab) in a filmed speech."

Sotoudeh has held several hunger strikes since January 2011 to protest her ill-treatment inside Evin prison. In May, her husband announced that she had lost a considerable amount of weight in prison and that, despite severe problems with her eyesight, she has been denied access to an optometrist. She is reportedly being held in Ward 209 of the prison, an enclosed space normally reserved for prisoners undergoing methadone treatments for drug addiction. Prisoners in the ward are banned from using the library and making phone calls and are granted access to fresh air for less than one hour each day.

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PEN Canada is the Canadian centre of PEN International, an community of writers that operates on all five continents with 144 centres in 102 countries.  It is a forum where writers meet freely to discuss their work, and a voice speaking out for writers silenced in their own countries. For more information: www.pencanada.ca

For further information:

Brendan de Caires, PEN Canada, (416) 703-8448 ext. 21