Iran arrests two prominent supporters of anti-head scarf protests

Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh embraces her son Nima upon her release from prison in September 2013 after serving a three-year sentence for “spreading propaganda against the system.”
(Behrouz Mehri / AFP/Getty Images)

Iranian authorities on Wednesday jailed a prominent human rights lawyer who has defended women who removed their mandatory Islamic head scarves in public.

Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested at her home by unidentified agents and taken to Evin Prison in Tehran, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, an advocacy group.

Her husband, Reza Khandan, said the agents told him she must serve a five-year sentence but did not say on what charges she was being detained, the group said. Khandan confirmed her arrest to The Times.


Separately, state media reported that Farhad Jafari, a well known writer in the city of Mashhad, was arrested 12 days ago for supporting “the girls of Enghelab Avenue,” near the Tehran square where, in December, a woman removed her headscarf in protest of modesty laws that require Iranian women to cover their hair.

The simple protest galvanized a nationwide women’s movement against the head scarf, or hijab, and added to the antigovernment unrest that has roiled Iran over the past several months.

The arrests suggested that Iran’s crackdown against human rights defenders and dissidents was escalating as the judiciary and clerical establishment seeks to keep a lid on public anger.

Sotoudeh, one of Iran’s most high-profile rights lawyers, has defended one of the women arrested and prosecuted in the anti-hijab protests. More recently, she has criticized the Iranian judiciary’s move to allow only state-approved lawyers to work on cases involving activists, dissidents and other detainees held for political reasons.

She and other opponents of Iran’s hard-line judiciary were reportedly planning a sit-in to protest the restrictions, which top judicial officials have defended as being in the interest of national security.

“The arrest of this distinguished attorney, who has dedicated her life to defending detainees held on politically motivated charges, reveals the state’s fear of those who defend due process and the rule of law in Iran,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said in a statement.

Amnesty International called Sotoudeh’s arrest “an outrage” and demanded her immediate release.

“Her arrest today is the latest example of the Iranian authorities’ vindictive attempts to stop her from carrying out her important work as a lawyer,” said Philip Luther, the group’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East.

Sotoudeh had previously served a three-year prison sentence for “spreading propaganda against the system.” She was granted a pardon in 2013 and released by President Hassan Rouhani at the start of his term, when he promised to relax political and social restrictions.

Rouhani, who won reelection last year, has failed to deliver on those promises. Meanwhile, Iranians have grown increasingly frustrated as their country risks sliding back into economic isolation following President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement and reinstate U.S. sanctions.

Jafari, the writer, was taken to Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, according to news reports.

The Iranian Writers Assn. condemned his arrest as “a clear breach of freedom of speech and the basic rights of citizens.”

“Farhad Jafari has not committed any crime, unless exercising freedom of speech is a crime,” the group said in a statement.

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

Shashank Bengali covers Iran for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali