After a five-week hunger strike, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iran's best-known human rights lawyer, faces a grave health crisis in Qarchak prison, a notoriously harsh facility south of Tehran.
For more than two decades, Sotoudeh, 57, fought for some of Iran's most sensitive causes — the rights of women, children on death row, endangered minorities. She has won international acclaim, but her defiance has come at a heavy personal price: She is serving a 38-year prison sentence for "national security" crimes, after defending women who protested Iran's compulsory head-covering law.
"She is the closest thing that Iran has to Nelson Mandela, someone who has remained steadfastly committed to her principles at enormous sacrifice to herself," says Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. "One of the reasons that the Islamic Republic fears her so much is the fact that she is truly irrepressible."
As her health deteriorates in prison and her family faces harassment, a new documentary, Nasrin, shows an intimate close-up of Sotoudeh's life and work. American filmmakers Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross spent four years making the documentary — narrated by Olivia Colman — from afar, unable to get a visa to Iran. They relied on Iranian videographers who remained anonymous because they risked arrest to do on-the-ground filming.
The camera follows Sotoudeh from home to office to court and finally to prison, where, when her family visits, she playfully pretends to tweak the nose of her young son from behind a plexiglass barrier.
The film highlights details of her work. After two brothers confessed to murdering a prominent member of a Baha'i family — a non-Muslim religious minority — because they believed he was an apostate, she represented the victim's family.
In an emotional scene, Sotoudeh challenges the killers' father, asking if he could imagine the Baha'i family's pain: "Put yourself in their shoes for a minute."
The scenes are intimate and personal, says Kaufman. "Nasrin always felt that even thought she was putting herself at risk to do this film, it was important to have as loud a voice as possible," he says.
Iran has arrested dissidents, demonstrators, activists and labor leaders — and in an escalating crackdown over the past two years, arrested their lawyers, too. Sotoudeh's arrest came in June 2018, midway through the documentary's filming, when Iranian security agents showed up at her home.
A year after, Sotoudeh was sentenced to prison and 148 lashes. She was tried in absentia because she refused to appear in court after being denied the right to choose her own lawyer.
Sotoudeh's draconian sentence has provoked international condemnation. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus called for her release in a tweet last month in which she criticized "the regime's barbarous use of unjust imprisonment." A social media campaign with the hashtag #FreeNasrin has attracted widespread support and politicians including Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have called for her release.
Sotoudeh's sentence came as no surprise to Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist living in exile in New York City and the author of The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran.
"It's not just about a small piece of cloth," she says about the hijab, the mandatory head covering. "It's one of the main pillars of the Islamic Republic." And, she says, "If women get the power to shake one of the main pillars, then they will win more battles."
During what were dubbed the "Girls of Revolution Street" protests in early 2018, women dared to take off their headscarves in public and waved them at the end of a stick, in a flag of defiance. The government crackdown on women protesting the hijab has been severe, with long sentences for rule-breakers. In 2019, three women who joined the headscarf protest were sentenced to a combined 55 years in prison.
In the documentary, Sotoudeh looks directly at the camera to explain why the fight to defend the women protesting Iran's head-covering law is important: "If you succeed in making us wear this half-meter of cloth," she says, "you will be able to do whatever you want to us."
Sotoudeh launched her hunger strike in August, as COVID-19 ravaged Iran's prison population. The government had temporarily released tens of thousands of prisoners, according to the U.N., but prominent political prisoners like Sotoudeh were not among them.
Earlier this month a state-approved Iranian news site, noting Sotoudeh's hunger strike, said that Iran was fulfilling its "duties to fight corruption and national security crimes in the face of psychological warfare from enemy," Voice of America reported.
Weakened after five weeks surviving on water, tea and salt, Sotoudeh was transferred to a hospital late last month. Tests showed her heart had been damaged but authorities sent her back to prison without needed care, her husband Reza Khandan tells NPR from Tehran.
"The main thing that worries me," he says, is "what if all these things cause her to have a heart attack?"
Khandan has been a vocal campaigner for the release of his wife. He has criticized Iran's human rights record on Facebook. After being sentenced to a six-year prison term for "conspiracy against national security," he is now out on bail.
"I'm not a fighter, I am not the revolutionary in the family," he says. "But I have to seek justice for Nasrin."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Iran's leading human rights advocate is in jail and in danger. Nasrin Sotoudeh ended a 46-day hunger strike, and her health is now very fragile. The family of the 57-year-old lawyer is trying to bring attention to her case through a new documentary. NPR's Deborah Amos has the story.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: By the time Nasrin Sotoudeh ended a hunger strike in September, her protest reached an international audience that called for her release. As COVID cases spiked in Iran, her demand - furlough vulnerable prisoners. Iran did grant temporary release to tens of thousands, but it didn't include prominent political prisoners. Weakened by a diet of salt water and tea, she was transferred to a hospital where tests showed heart damage, but she didn't get needed care, says her husband, Reza Khandan. He spoke to NPR from Tehran.
How is Nasrin's health? Are you worried about her?
REZA KHANDAN: (Through interpreter) The main thing that worries me is that what if all these things are doing to her is going to cause her to have a heart attack?
AMOS: Sotoudeh is a defiant lawyer in a country where defiance can be costly. That's the story a new documentary tells called "Nasrin."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NASRIN")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She is one of the bravest voices in Iran.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She took on cases that other lawyers were too afraid to take on.
BARACK OBAMA: We've seen Nasrin Sotoudeh jailed for defending human rights.
AMOS: Filmmakers Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross interviewed her for four years from afar, the on-the-ground camera work done by Iranians who risked arrest and can't be named for security reasons. The result - an intimate portrait of a woman called the Nelson Mandela of Iran, says Kaufman.
JEFF KAUFMAN: Nasrin always knew that the best way to have strength and power and change is to have a loud, clear voice. She says in the film at one point, we must not let our children inherit silence.
AMOS: Sotoudeh has fought for some of Iran's most sensitive causes, saving juveniles on death row, winning limited justice for threatened minorities. She was jailed in 2018 simply for defending women who protested Iran's compulsory head covering law by removing their scarves in public. She was sentenced to decades in prison.
KAUFMAN: Her arrest was traumatic and horrible for her and her family. It changed the dynamic not just for the film but really for our lives.
AMOS: The filmmakers are raising the alarm about her health, even as the documentary opened to American audiences, says Ross.
MARCIA ROSS: There's a tremendous amount of concern about Nasrin's health. She's extremely fragile physically.
AMOS: Now, it's husband Reza Khandan speaking out from Tehran.
KHANDAN: (Non-English language spoken).
AMOS: "I'm not a fighter or a revolutionary," he tells me. "I am a seeker of justice for Nasrin," he explains. He's also threatened with arrest despite his role as a single parent for the couple's two children. But he says now I have to raise my voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NASRIN")
NASRIN SOTOUDEH: (Non-English language spoken).
AMOS: Nasrin Sotoudeh's voice, her lifetime of speaking out against injustice, is introduced to a wider audience in a documentary called "Nasrin." Deborah Amos, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "THE LAST OF US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.