06/12/2013 09:05 EDT | Updated 08/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Honouring the Lawyer in Solitary Confinement

On Wednesday, June 12th, York University will confer an honourary Doctor of Laws degree on Nasrin Sotoudeh, the imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer now in her third year of imprisonment -- much of which has been spent in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison.

On Wednesday, June 12th, York University will confer an honourary Doctor of Laws degree on Nasrin Sotoudeh, the imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer now in her third year of imprisonment - much of which has been spent in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison - and who is both the embodiment of the struggle for human rights in Iran as well as the symbol of the Iranian regime's massive domestic repression.

Nasrin Sotoudeh has emerged for Iranians as the iconic lawyer defending the hundreds of Iranian citizens arrested, detained, tortured, imprisoned and executed for nothing other than exercising their rights to freedom of expression and human dignity. York is to be commended on its choice of such a passionate advocate for the rights of others.

Indeed, the conferral of this honourary degree could not have come at a more opportune moment - on the eve of Presidential elections in Iran fraught with fraud and fear - and where Nasrin Sotoudeh's heroism contrasts dramatically with an election that is neither free nor fair, and where several of the 'vetted' presidential candidates have themselves been indicted for terrorist criminality.

Even among the remarkable individuals who have dared to confront the Iranian regime, Nasrin Sotoudeh stands out for her courage and determination. In the words of Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of Ms. Sotoudeh's former clients, "Nasrin is fearless in taking on tough cases that other lawyers would carefully avoid."

Her advocacy has included being a leader in the struggle for women's rights amidst the persistent and pervasive assault against women; a leader in the struggle against child executions, while Iran has executed more minors per capita than any other country in the world; a valued defender of journalists and bloggers at a time when Iran has jailed more journalists and bloggers than any other country in the world; and a lawyer to other Iranian lawyers who themselves became political prisoners. Indeed, Iran has jailed more than fifty of its lawyers and Nasrin was a courageous lawyer for political prisoners until becoming one herself.

Nasrin's arrest and conviction -- on vague and trumped up charges of "propaganda against the regime" and "acting against national security" -- are themselves reflective of the criminalization of innocence in Iran in proceedings devoid of any due process or semblance of legality. This is yet another case-study of the assault on the rule of law in Iran, not unlike the massive repression in the run-up to the Iranian elections this Friday.

As the European Parliament put it in awarding her the world's most prestigious human rights recognition, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, "The award is a message of solidarity and recognition to a woman and a man who have not been bowed by fear and intimidation and who have decided to put the fate of their country before their own."

While the York honour is most deserving, timely, and illuminating, we must ask ourselves what else can be done on Nasrin's behalf and on behalf of other prisoners of conscience, let alone the victims of the massive Iranian assault on human rights.

First, it is the duty of parliamentarians and others to expose, unmask, and condemn Iran's massive domestic repression -- what the great Soviet dissident Andre Sakharov called "the mobilization of shame against the human rights violator." The international preoccupation with the Iranian nuclear threat -- while understandable -- has had the effect of marginalizing, ignoring, or otherwise sanitizing the horrific human rights situation.

Second, we must call for the unconditional and immediate release of all political prisoners. Accordingly, I have organized with U.S. Senator Mark Kirk the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran to support the courageous men and women on the front lines of the struggle for human rights in Iran. In that regard, we recently launched the Iranian Political Prisoner Global Advocacy Program, whereby parliamentarians "adopt" individual prisoners and internationalize advocacy on their behalf. I am pleased to have taken up the case of cause of Nasrin Sotoudeh in association with my Senate colleague, Raynell Andreychuk.

Third, we must call upon Iran to cease and desist from its persecution and prosecution of women and religious minorities -- such as the Baha'i -- and to end its barbaric practice of executing minors.

Fourth, we must call for enhanced and enforced sanctions against the major Iranian human rights violators and to hold Iran accountable for its breach of international human rights treaties as well as its own laws in the persecution and prosecution of its citizens.

When confronted with a regime as violent and despotic as the one currently in place in Iran, simply speaking out about abuses may seem like too feeble a response. However, there is clear evidence that denunciation and international pressure can have a positive effect. Nasrin Sotoudeh's sentence, for example, was commuted from eleven to six years as a result of international protest. We must therefore continue to advocate on her behalf until she is safe and free.

Advocacy on behalf of such political prisoners has not been without success. Indeed, in 1987, York University president Harry Arthurs handed Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky the honorary doctorate that he had been awarded in absentia in 1982 while a political prisoner in the former Soviet Union. As one who represented Sharasnky at the time, I can attest that the public support and outcry on his behalf was critical to putting pressure on the Soviet Union for his release; and indeed, not long after York honoured him, he was in fact released.

By taking seriously our responsibility to stand with Nasrin and the people of Iran, to champion their case and cause, to let them know that the world is watching -- that they are not alone - we can hope that their just struggle for human rights and human dignity will prevail. And Nasrin and her fellow peers will yet be freed.

Irwin Cotler is the former Minister of Justice Attorney General and Co-Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran. He is also the recipient of an honourary Doctorate from York University.