When Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer, was released in September 2013 — along with 11 other high-profile political prisoners — many Iranians saw the move as opening a new era following the election of centrist President Hassan Rouhani.
He had promised to release political prisoners rounded up after the contested 2009 elections, when thousands of protesters, known as the Green Movement, were tried and jailed.
The high-profile gesture came less than a week before Rouhani’s first speech at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. He had campaigned on a pledge to open a broad dialogue with the West aimed at finding a way out of a nuclear standoff.
But optimism is fading for his domestic campaign pledge as further prisoner releases have stalled.
“This is not a good feeling that I’m free but others are not,” Sotoudeh said in an interview in her apartment in Tehran.
We met over breakfast where her husband, Reza Khandan, served sweet tea to guests. Khandan posted frequent updates on Sotoudeh’s incarceration and her release on his Facebook page.
Within weeks of her exit from prison, Iran’s conservatives mounted a fierce campaign insisting jailed reformists remain behind bars. Tehran’s police chief called the 2009 uprising an “unforgiveable sin.” Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, opposition presidential candidates who drew thousands of the streets in 2009, remain under house arrest.
“I hope when they are free they will feel a sense of freedom in society,” she said, though hope has faded for a quick release.
Her own departure from prison came as a total surprise. She was halfway through a six-year sentence on charges of acting against national security when a prison official told Sotoudeh she could go home.
“‘You are free,’ she told me. We must bring you home. I didn’t expect it,” Sotoudeh said. She laughed, remembering her confusion on that day, when a prison official drove her to her front door in Tehran.
Her family was stunned when she rang the doorbell. They had often been barred from even visiting her in Iran’s harshest political prison. They also feared for her health. She went on repeated hunger strikes against what she considered her illegal arrest. The longest lasted 49 days until authorities lifted a travel ban on her 12-year-old daughter.
“They punished my daughter because of me – precisely because of me,” she said, satisfied that her sacrifice had overturned the ban.
The 50-year-old Sotoudeh has a long career in challenging Iran’s court system, taking on sensitive political cases including that of Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
When many lawyers had fled the country, Sotoudeh was “the only human rights lawyer with a track record of activity,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the international campaign for human rights in Iran.
“She has the most important voice after 2009,” he said, referring to the crackdown on a movement disputing the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Sotoudeh was one of the last lawyers taking on cases before her arrest in 2010.
“Nasrin, in a way, had become the most well-known prisoner of conscience in Iran,” he added.
U.S. and European officials campaigned for her release. Human rights groups publicized her case. In Europe, she was awarded in prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012. Rouhani scored political points at home and in the West following her release, according to Ghaemi, pre-empting criticism of Iran’s human rights record.
Iranian officials also pledged to release the rest of the Green Movement prisoners in the coming months.
“It got widespread coverage,” said Ghaemi. “They promised, a promise that never came.”
‘I Am Hopeful’
Since her release, Sotoudeh has become a target for Iran’s hard-liners, especially after meeting with a European delegation last year at the Greek Embassy in Tehran.
They awarded her the Sakharov prize in person and linked progress on human rights with the nuclear talks. Her home was ransacked two weeks later. Her husband posted a photograph on Facebook, writing that “almost nothing of value remains in our home.”
Last month, she appeared at a literary gathering in Tehran, hosted by a writer who had been jailed for satirical poems critical of the government. The group gave her a standing ovation for her first public speech since her release. She is still willing to speak out for civil rights, said Ghaemi.
“She said, ‘I may be free, I may be out of this small prison, but we are all limited and still being circumvented by the big prison, which is the entire country,'” he said.
There are risks to remaining in Iran, Ghaemi said, and Sotoudeh seems well aware of the price. She said the election of Hassan Rouhani has, at least, opened a space for dissident voices.
“I want to say that I am hopeful,” she said. “I am not disappointed with the government.”