'I insist': Film gives new voice to jailed Iran rights lawyer

Paris (AFP) –


Tehran, March 2018: the lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh reflects on a career that has seen her take on the most sensitive of causes in Iran, including saving juveniles from the death penalty, defending outlawed religious minorities and standing up for women's rights.

"Even though this movement did not achieve the desired results, it is an experience and an asset for our future steps. Because of this I should tell myself 'Yes! I should have the right to be happy!'" she smiles.

Three months later, in June 2018, Sotoudeh was jailed to serve a five-year sentence on spying charges, after a secret trial she was not even able to attend.

The following year, she received a new 12-year sentence for "encouraging corruption and debauchery".

The 2012 winner of the European Parliament's Sakharov prize and the 2020 Right Livelihood Award laureate remains behind bars in Tehran's Evin prison, and her case is generating increasing international concern.

Deprived of tools to communicate, Sotoudeh, 57, put her life on the line in a one-and-a-half-month hunger strike from August to September, calling for the release of political prisoners during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the release of a documentary film has given Sotoudeh a new voice for her determination to campaign for justice in Iran.

The film, "Nasrin," shows Sotoudeh going about her daily work in Iran before her latest arrest, defending cases including those of women arrested for removing their compulsory headscarf.

"If we are successful in these efforts to gain our freedom through our choice of clothing then it will be a permanent freedom," she tells the camera in the film.

"We need to speak out. We need to demand. We need to insist. We need to stand our ground."

- 'Risk a lot' -

The credits in the film, made by documentary maker Jeff Kaufman and narrated by "The Crown" actress Olivia Colman, say the filming on the ground in Iran was carried out by "anonymous" with their names withheld for security reasons.

"We found a couple of people we could work with and trusted. They were just amazing. They did risk a lot," Kaufman told AFP. "They felt that getting the story out was important."

The film, which had its premiere this month at the GlobeDocs Film Festival, shows Sotoudeh plunged into the intensity of her daily routine, negotiating Tehran's crammed traffic at the wheel of her car as she travels from her office to courthouses.

She gently guides one tearful young woman through the prospect that the judiciary is likely to impose a prison sentence for her bold protest in symbolically removing her headscarf. But the smile and kindness never falter.

"You must have one of these pastries," she tells her.

Another client is the celebrated Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi -- who featured Sotoudeh in a cameo in his prize-winning film "Taxi Tehran," made inside a car due to a ban from filmmaking -- as he seeks to have a travel ban overturned.

The film also shows the toll on Sotoudeh's family life, with her young daughter and son only able to communicate through phone calls and occasional prison visits behind a thick glass pane.

"This call is made by an inmate of Evin prison," says an automatic voice that constantly interrupts one phone call with the family.

- 'Enemy of progress' -

Sotoudeh was previously jailed from 2010 to 2013, during which time she staged several hunger strikes.

"One of the problems is that you can never take what they (the authorities) say seriously," her husband Reza Khandan says in the film, "It is never clear if they are telling the truth."

Taghi Rahmani, the husband of rights campaigner Narges Mohammadi, who spent half a decade in jail, adds that "Evin is where freedom bleeds and human rights are violated and raped."

In a rare flash of hope, Mohammadi was unexpectedly freed last week.

Kaufman said Sotoudeh has never had a chance to see the film.

"But Reza and the children have, and they have been incredibly supportive," he said, adding that he was optimistic the film would raise awareness of her case.

"The regime has a way of putting pressure on families to keep them silent," he said. "Nasrin and Reza believe that silence is an enemy of progress."