Imprisoned Iranian rights activist among four winners of 2020 Right Livelihood Award

Nasrin Sotoudeh, in Jafar Panahi's latest film "Taxi Téhéran" (Memento Films)

Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, was named on Thursday as one of the four winners of the 2020 Right Livelihood Award, also known as Sweden's alternative Nobel prize.

Soutoude, who has been locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison for more than two years,  won the award “for her fearless activism, at great personal risk, to promote political freedoms and human rights in Iran,” the Right Livelihood Foundation said in a statement.

She shares the award with US civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, indigenous rights and environmental activist Lottie Cunningham Wren of Nicaragua and Belarusian pro-democracy activist Ales Bialiatski.

Bialiatski shares his award with Viasna, the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Centre he founded to support political prisoners. They will each receive prize money of one million SEK (103,000 Swiss francs) from the Swedish Right Livelihood Foundation, which also has offices in Geneva where much of the selection process takes place.

Ole von Uexkull, executive director of the Right Livelihood Foundation, said this year’s laureates “are united in their fight for equality, democracy, justice, and freedom”. He added:

“Defying unjust legal systems and dictatorial political regimes, they successfully strengthen human rights, empower civil societies and denounce institutional abuses. This year’s selection of recipients highlights the increasing threats to democracy globally. It is high time that all of us in favour of democracy around the world stand up and support each other.”

Fighting for freedom: Rising to prominence in the aftermath of the 2009 anti-government protests, the so-called “Green Revolution”, Soutoude, 57, has long fought for the rights of political prisoners, opposition activists, women and children who have been victims of violations by the Iranian regime.

In 2018, just before her arrest, she started representing women who had taken off their headscarves in the streets in protest to compulsory hijab laws. She also campaigned against the death penalty for minors convicted of crimes committed under the age of 18. In March 2019, she was sentenced to a total of 38 years in prison on vague charges including stoking “corruption and prostitution.”

Soutoudeh went on a hunger strike in August to demand the release of the country’s political prisoners and to protest against poor conditions in Iran’s detention facilities, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. She ended the 46-day strike last week due to her worsening health condition.

United Nations experts called for her immediate release after she was taken to hospital. “It is unfathomable that the Iranian authorities would return Ms. Sotoudeh to prison where she is at heightened risk to COVID-19, as well as with her serious heart condition,” the experts said in a statement released by the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.

“We urge the authorities to immediately reverse this decision, accept her requests to recuperate at home before undergoing a heart procedure, and allow her to freely choose her own medical treatment,” they added.

Receiving the award on behalf of his wife, Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, said: “Many thanks to the Swedish Right Livelihood Foundation for granting its annual award to Nasrin and three other human rights activists.

“It would be impossible to tolerate these pressures without local and international support. The speed and strength of this support seem to outweigh the government’s pressures.”