A prominent Iranian human rights lawyer has told CNN that while a brutal state crackdown has succeeded in quieting the demonstrations that gripped the country for months, many Iranians still want regime change.
In an exclusive interview Wednesday from her home in Tehran, Nasrin Sotoudeh told CNN’s Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour that, “the protests have somewhat died down, but that doesn’t mean that the people are no longer angry … they constantly want and still want a regime change. They want a referendum.”
Sotoudeh, renowned around the world for advocating for the rights of women, children and activists in Iran, is currently on medical furlough from jail, after being sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes in March 2019.
Nationwide protests rocked Iran last fall, as decades of bitterness over the regime’s treatment of women and other issues boiled over after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the country’s so-called morality police.
Authorities violently repressed the months-long movement, which had posed one of the biggest domestic threats to Iran’s ruling clerical regime in more than a decade.
Still, Sotoudeh emphasizes that the protest movement endures. “Official authorities are trying to flex their muscles more, they’re trying to show their strength a lot more than before, but civil disobedience continues and many women courageously take to the streets.”
Figures like Sotoudeh, who have battled against Iran’s mandatory hijab wearing for women, have been under increased government scrutiny since the uprising.
The protests exploded into a full-fledged women’s rights movement against the country’s headscarf laws after the death of Amini, a Kurdish Iranian woman who was detained for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.
Sotoudeh compared Iran’s mandatory hijab laws to those applied by other authoritarian regimes in countries including Afghanistan, where the Taliban banned women attending universities and working with non-governmental organizations.
“This issue really hurt the collective conscience of the Iranian people, because for many years the Iranian people had suffered, and one of the main sufferings was that half the population was constantly being harassed because of their gender, because of their body,” she said.
“I do believe that both in Iran and in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, hijab is being used as a means of exerting violence and meting out violence against women, bruising and hurting women, and then covering them in a veil to hide all the bruises and the hurt.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran has long ranked among the world’s top executioners. But with several recent death sentences handed down to protesters, critics say the regime has taken capital punishment to a new level.
Reports have also emerged of forced detentions and physical abuse being used to target the country’s Kurdish minority group. A CNN investigation with covert testimony revealed sexual violence against protesters, including boys, in Iran’s detention centers since the start of the unrest.
Last week, concern mounted over the health of imprisoned Iranian doctor and civil rights activist Farhad Meysami, after several images purporting to show his frail state emerged on social media.
Sotoudeh, who is friends with Meysami, said: “I have to say how sorry I am that for many years, all the news you hear from Iran is bad news, including the pictures of emaciated Farhad Meysami from prison.”
She added that: “(Meysami) said ‘I am against compulsory hijab’ and because he had written (that) on a placard … they imprisoned him.”
The text of a letter allegedly written by Meysami and provided to CNN by a human rights lawyer who claims to represent him, Mohammad Moghimi, showed that the activist started the hunger strike to protest the execution of prisoners, to call for the release of several protesters and to stop hijab law enforcements. CNN could not verify the authenticity of the letter.
Pictures on social media showed Meysami’s bones protruding and his head shaved. CNN has not been able to confirm when the pictures were taken. CNN reached out to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.
“For many years, Farhad has been a very active member of our civil society, but for the past ten years, [his] activism has become more and more open. And he has been especially supporting the women in their protest movement,” Sotoudeh added.
Meysami was jailed in 2018 after voicing his support for women protesting the hijab law. He was charged with “assembly and collusion to act against national security” and of “propaganda against the regime,” according to a group focused on Iran, Human Rights Activists.
After the images of Meysami circulated online, state affiliated media on Friday denied the activist is currently on hunger strike, and said that he is in “good condition.”
“Farhad’s demands are also the demands of all Iranians, and I hope that as soon as possible, these demands will be realized so that we can save Farhad’s life, and we can save all of us,” Sotoudeh told Amanpour.
Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved a proposal to pardon or commute the sentences of a large number of prisoners as part of an annual amnesty, state media reported.
However, humanitarian organizations dismissed the move as “propaganda” and a “PR stunt” ahead of the 44th anniversary of the “victory of the Islamic Revolution,” marked on February 11. It is customary for Khamenei to grant amnesty to some prisoners to mark this occasion.
“This is a scenario that is repeated every year. And I don’t want to give myself any false hopes that they are going to release people. I want to have the hope that they will release either one or 10,000 political prisoners, any release I’d be very happy with, and that’s my hope,” Sotoudeh said of the announcement.
Looking ahead, the Iranian lawyer said that while she is fearful of speaking out against the government, she is committed to freeing future generations from the grip of the regime.
“We don’t know what is going to be the precise outcome, we don’t know that. But people’s demands are becoming more and more transparent, more vociferous,” she added.
Asked if she feared for her own safety, Sotoudeh responded: “Yes … knowing that my family, my children are being threatened, as a mother, because I know it can curb their education, it can curb their progress… yes I am fearful because of that.”
Yet those concerns won’t stop her fight, she told Amanpour.
“But on the other hand, I’m also frightened that if I don’t do anything, if I stay passive, that would lead to worsening of the situation,” Sotoudeh added.
“Despite my fear, I try and do what is going to be more helpful for freeing the country and freeing our people.”