Since graduating with a degree in law from Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and passing the Bar, Nasrin Sotoudeh has represented victims of human rights violations, including political dissidents such as Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, and families of executed political prisoners. She has also taken on cases of child abuse and spousal abuse. As a leading Iranian human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist, she was an initiator of the “One-million Signature Campaign”, an attempt to reform the Islamic Family Law. Arrested in 2010 on charges of conspiring against national security, she was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin Prison, where she remains today.
In recognition of her courage and commitment to social justice, York University awarded Sotoudeh with an honorary doctor of laws degree on Wednesday, June 12 during Spring Convocation ceremonies for the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies. For her courageous work fighting for justice and freedom under the most difficult and life-threatening of conditions, Sotoudeh has been recognized with several international prizes, including one from Italy’s Committee for Human Rights, the US PEN Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Sotoudeh’s colleague and friend, Karim Lahidji, president of the International Federation of Human Rights, attended the ceremony to read her Convocation address and accept the honorary doctor of laws degree on her behalf.
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The following is the text of the convocation address by Nasrin Sotoudeh to graduands of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies:
I send you my sincere greetings from Iran. I have great respect for universities as centres of knowledge and wisdom. I am deeply touched and grateful for the honour bestowed upon me by the prestigious York University. I would also like to express my gratitude to my compatriot professors, students and alumni at York University who nominated me for this great honour
As you may know, I have studied in one of the Iranian universities. The Law School of the University, where I studied, attached great importance to the teaching of professional ethics and legal knowledge of its students.
I would like to tell you first why I decided to study law and why I was involved in human rights activities.
When I was young and was preparing to choose my course of study, I was deeply idealist and eager for truth and justice. Then I concluded that I could find both ideals in Law. When I think of those days now, I remember that I was ready to take every risk to arrive at the truth.
Like all human beings, I gradually realized that nobody is in possession of the whole truth. Nevertheless, everybody’s rights must be respected despite all the mistakes they may make in life, in the same way that I wish my rights as a human being to be respected, even though I do not possess the whole truth. Thus, I entered the labyrinthine world of Law.
Law speaks of social musts and must-nots. It speaks of the rights of persons and their duties. It speaks of crime and punishment, of the humans’ right to ownership, right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, equality of the rights of men and women, rights of the child, so on and so forth. These noble ideas are of course also valued and taught from different angles in the Social Sciences and Humanities disciplines.
All this was quite interesting and incredible, because it presented me with a clear path ahead in the field of Law. Nevertheless, you are not always facing clear issues in the world of Law and in the bar practice. The subject matter of the case changes shade successively and introduces doubt to the lawyer or the judge.
Human rights, however, deal more easily with those changes. Religious minorities have a right to live according to their religious beliefs. The press must have the right to freedom and freedom of expression. The people have a right to have access to free and truthful information. Children have the right to enjoy their rights.
Women, men, children and old people, regardless of colour, race, gender, language, ethnicity and religious belief have the right to enjoy their human rights. They have a right to immunity from illegal prosecution; they have a right to fair trial, to have access to lawyers, who would continue to defend their clients, without fearing persistent intimidation and threats.
Endeavours are needed to realize those rights, in particular through refraining from silence, disavowal or denial. All three are clear features of the tyrannized societies.
I must admit in all honesty that I could not see any reason for my work, when I was engaged desperately in intensive work to defend my clients./ What I was doing was the most natural thing to do, because the oath I had taken when I started to practice as a lawyer prohibited me from keeping silent in the face of apparent injustice done to my compatriots. I was defending individuals who had suffered injustice before my eyes, whose fundamental rights had been ignored by the State power.
As you may know, I am in prison now. Prison provides an opportunity for the prisoner to contemplate their past and probe deeply into it.
I have asked myself many times in prison: how did my life unfold as it has? I knew that there was no escape from it, but a suffering deep inside obliged me to protest; to protest at the persistent violation of human rights in a society, where I, my family and millions of other people, whom I love, live.
In spite of all this, Law, lawyer’s practice, judge’s practice, human rights, regional legal institutions, human rights courts, the International Criminal Court, truth commissions and other legal institutions, concepts, and above all, truth and justice illuminate our path.
We know what we want and we know how to achieve them.
We are taking slow and patient steps in our society to establish judicial independence and to install institutions that are essential for protecting the fundamental human rights.
Once again, I offer my gratitude and appreciation to York University, its Senate, worthy colleagues and professors, students, and alumni for their invaluable support. I wish success for all the students of York University in achieving the goal they are pursuing. I believe that our joint efforts to develop and promote human rights in every corner of the globe shall bear fruit.
With my warmest regards,
Iran – Evin prison