Arrest of award-winning lawyer Sotoudeh adds to outrage over teen’s death in Iran

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The arrest of a prize-winning Iranian rights lawyer has compounded the anger expressed by rights groups over the death of a teenage girl who activists say was fatally beaten by the Tehran morality police.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, 60, was arrested at the funeral on Sunday in Tehran of Armita Garawand, 17, whose death was reported by Iranian state media at the weekend after a month in a coma.

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Garawand was severely wounded in an incident on the Tehran metro on October 1 that activists have described as an altercation with female police officers who had apprehended her for failing to wear the Islamic headscarf.

This has been strongly denied by Iranian officials who insist she collapsed and hurt herself as a result of low blood pressure.

The incident has strong echoes of the case of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in September 2022 after being detained for failing to obey the dress code, with authorities wanting to prevent any repeat of the mass protests that followed her death.

Sotoudeh, who has spent much of the past decade in and out of prison serving a myriad of sentences in cases linked to her activism, was after her arrest moved to Qarchak women’s prison outside Tehran, her husband Reza Khandan wrote on Facebook.

Conditions in Qarchak have been repeatedly denounced by rights groups. His wife has begun a hunger strike, refusing food and medicine since her arrest, Khandan added.

Fellow activist Manzar Zarabi, who lost four relatives in Iran’s shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner in 2020 and has since campaigned for justice, was arrested at the same event but has now been released due to her health, he added.

Speaking to AFP, Khandan said Sotoudeh had appeared before prosecutors on Monday and was informed she faces accusations of “conspiring against national security.”

“The judicial authorities told her that her trial would take place in two weeks and that she would not be released until then,” he said.

‘Cut cruelly short’

The funeral came at a time of high tension, with rights groups pointing the finger at the Islamic Republic for the death of Garawand, who had been treated at a military hospital in Tehran under tight security.

“I am aggrieved and outraged that the life of yet another young person... was cut cruelly short in connection to Iran’s abusive and degrading compulsory veiling laws,” said Amnesty International’s secretary general Agnes Callamard.

She added that Sotoudeh had been “arbitrarily detained” at the funeral and called for her and others arrested at the event to also be released, with campaigners saying that dozens of people had been taken in.

Sotoudeh was also beaten during the arrest and her glasses broken, according to her husband.

“Beating and arresting unarmed civilians for peacefully mourning yet another death of a young girl in state custody is a continuation of the atrocities the Iranian government is continuously inflicting upon the Iranian people,” said the executive director of New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) Hadi Ghaemi.

The French foreign ministry said that the “troubling circumstances” of her death required an investigation and added it was “very concerned” by the arrest of Sotoudeh.

The US State Department echoed demands for the unconditional release of Sotoudeh “and others detained unjustly by the regime.”

Garawand’s death after a month in a coma was first reported by state-controlled media inside Iran, and activists have accused the Iranian authorities of pressuring her family not to speak out.

The family of Mahsa Amini said her death was caused by a blow to the head sustained in custody, an accusation vehemently denied by the Iranian authorities, who say the 22-year-old woman of Kurdish origin had been suffering from ill health.

‘Fearless heroines’

Sotoudeh’s fellow rights campaigner Narges Mohammadi, who was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace prize but remains in jail in Iran, in a message from prison described Garawand’s death as “murder.”

“Armita Garawand, full of the enthusiasm of life, was sent to the brink of death because of her beautiful hair, which she had no intention of hiding with the ‘mandatory hijab’,” she said in the message on the Instagram account run by her family.

Sotoudeh has for years campaigned on some of the most sensitive issues in the Islamic Republic, notably working to prevent the execution of youths convicted of crimes committed while minors. She won prizes including the 2012 Sakharov prize bestowed by the European Parliament and the 2020 Right Livelihood award.

The mother of two children, she has also won prominence thanks to appearances in film. She made a memorable cameo appearance as a passenger in Jafar Panahi’s 2015 movie “Taxi Tehran,” and was the subject of a warmly received 2020 documentary “Nasrin.”

“Nasrin is one of the most prominent and fearless heroines in the struggle for human rights in Iran,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, saying she had endured over a decade of persecution “without flinching.”

With AFP

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