Iranian human rights lawyer is latest in string of arrests

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 15, 2010; 5:23 PM

TEHRAN - A prominent Iranian human rights lawyer was put on trial Monday, highlighting an intensifying crackdown on lawyers who defend influential opposition politicians, activists and journalists.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, 47, was arrested in September and accused of endangering national security. The start of her court case follows the Saturday arrest of five more lawyers in what lawyers are describing as a crackdown on those defending opponents of Iran's leaders.

Sotoudeh's court case, which is expected to take several weeks, was held behind closed doors. Lawyers and family members were told not to discuss its details with foreign media.

In recent months, at least 10 lawyers have been sentenced to prison terms or are awaiting trail. Several others have fled the country. On Oct. 30, prominent lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh was sentenced to nine years in prison and to a 10-year ban on practicing law after his release. He was found guilty of "acting against national security" and "establishing the Human Rights Defenders Center."

That organization, which is now disbanded, was led by 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who left the Islamic republic in 2009 after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed election victory led to mass protests and a harsh crackdown on dissidents.

The protests, which died down after violent interventions by security forces, were followed by purges of opposition supporters in universities, government offices and media outlets. A small group of defense lawyers remained active, defending dissidents who were often put on televised mass trials.

Authorities are now especially sensitive about well-connected individuals and small organizations, which in their view could potentially reenergize protests.

Sotoudeh, who also was connected to Ebadi's Human Rights Defenders Center, had been defending several political activists, including Arash Rahmanipour, 19, who was executed in January after a special court found him guilty of organizing anti-government riots. Sotoudeh always has insisted that her client was innocent.

Her trial, the recent arrests and prison sentences for lawyers are a sign that the government is trying to intimidate such lawyers, who in the past also have acted as vocal supporters of human and women's rights, some other lawyers say.

"They are damaging independence of lawyers and creating obstacles for defending the accused," said Farideh Gheyrat, a well-known lawyer close to Sotoudeh. "This goes against all laws that protect us from such prosecutions."

The crackdown comes as Iran protested against a possible resolution against the Islamic republic condemning its human-rights record.

Speaking at the United Nations in New York on Monday, Iran's top judicial adviser for international affairs Mohammad-Javad Larijani said Western states are misusing the human rights issue to pressure Iran.

He said a resolution condemning Iran's human-rights record was "illegal and illegitimate," the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted him as saying during the 65th meeting of the U.N. General Assembly on human rights.

"The U.S. and the West have drastically lost their competence to comment about human-rights issues," Larijani said.

Also on Monday, Ahmadinejad reacted to recent social unrest in France and urged European leaders to show respect for human rights. "I am sure that the arrogant powers will fail against the will and resolve of their nations," he said, according to state television.

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