IN AN authoritarian system, it takes a tremendous amount of personal nerve to stand up for one’s rights. Many who do so suffer imprisonment, physical abuse and painful family repercussions. They also often rely on a few courageous lawyers who fight for them through arduous journeys in court and prison. But the authoritarians have figured this out and are punishing the lawyers, too. This is what is behind the shockingly severe sentence given to Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer, who told her husband she has been given 38 years in prison and 148 lashes.

The prosecution of Ms. Sotoudeh is outrageous. Her crime? She defended women being prosecuted for peacefully protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law by removing the head covering in public. The regime is clearly set on making an example of her. “First they went after the journalists, activists and dissidents. Now they’re going after their only line of defense,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. A root-and-branch attack on rights defenders has also been waged in recent years by dictators in China and Turkey. In a genuine rule-of-law system, no one is above the law, but these tyrants and their security services have turned the notion on its head and created a black hole in which anyone who challenges authority can be incarcerated on flimsy accusations. According to the human rights group, Ms. Sotoudeh is among at least seven human rights attorneys who were arrested in Iran in 2018.

She was tried in absentia in a Revolutionary Court in Tehran. She refused to appear in court, after she was denied the right to choose her own lawyer. The actual length of the sentence is not definitively clear; she has not been informed in writing, she told her husband, Reza Khandan, in a brief phone call from Evin prison. She said the term was five years in one case and 33 in another case involving nine charges, although it could be reduced. The charges are of the bizarre and politically motivated type that dictators often throw at those who protest. According to her husband, they include: “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” membership in various human rights groups, “encouraging corruption and prostitution,” “appearing at the judiciary without Islamic hijab,” “disturbing public peace and order” and “publishing falsehoods with the intent to disturb public opinion.”

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Ms. Sotoudeh, 55, was arrested last June at her home. Her two children have not been allowed to visit her. She previously served in prison for her work from 2010 to 2013. Ms. Sotoudeh was awarded in 2012 the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and, last year, the Ludovic Trarieux Human Rights Prize. She is a woman of extraordinary courage, and her jailing is an affront to all who believe in human dignity and the rule of law.

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