Report by Sarah Glynn
This year the EU Parliament awarded their annual Sakharov Prize for Human Rights to ‘Jina Mahsa Amini and the Woman, Life, Freedom Movement in Iran’. It was the death of Jina Amini at the hands of the Iranian ‘morality police’ in September 2022 that triggered the mass revolutionary movement which spread across Iran under the Kurdish Freedom Movement slogan, “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî – Woman, Life, Freedom”.
Jina’s parents and brother were due to come to Strasbourg for the award ceremony, but at the last minute, their permission to leave Iran was arbitrarily refused. Among the persons able to attend the ceremony were Afsoon Najafi, sister of Hadis Najafi who became another symbol of the protests when she was shot and killed with six bullets in Iran’s brutal response to the protests, and Mersedeh Shahinkar, who herself lost an eye to state violence.
The Amini family’s lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, was left as their sole representative at the ceremony on Tuesday in the parliament chamber. Nikbakht read out a letter from Jina’s mother that was at the same time powerful and tender – and made sure to remind the assembled politicians and the visitors in the gallery that Jina was not only a woman, but a woman from Rojhilat – Iranian Kurdistan. Jina was oppressed as a woman and as a Kurd, and the Kurdistan region was the epicentre of the protests that followed her death.
Sarah Glynn from Medya News caught up with Saleh Nikbakht in Strasbourg to ask a few questions, including what has changed in Rojhilat since Jina’s death:
Nikbakht: There are two ways to address this. In terms of repression against people and of state security the situation is worse. But, after the Jina’s martyrdom, the resistance of the people against the regime is bigger and stronger. There is a greater political consciousness. People are defending their rights and refusing to obey the hijab rules. For example, on the anniversary of Jina’s death, everyone in Kurdistan exercised a one-day strike. The bazaars were closed down. Kurdish cities were particularly badly terrorised, and in Jina’s hometown of Saqqez, regime forces didn’t allow anyone onto the streets. Some of the prisoners captured during the uprisings have been released, but prisoners who refuse to cooperate with the state have been imprisoned.
Nikbakht went onto explain the numerous difficulties working as a lawyer in a country that disregards legal norms:
Nikbakht: If a lawyer is not dealing with human rights, democracy, or politics, the regime doesn’t intervene, but defending political cases is a problem. If you are dealing with a case that involves the intelligence, the security services, the army, or other state bodies, that is a bigger problem.
And, generally, these cases do not even provide an opportunity to publicise what is happening?
Nikbakht: The law calls for all hearings to be public except for some personal and family matters, but judges have the power to prevent cases from being heard publicly and most are not in fact public.
Lawyer Nikbakht is only too aware of the difficulties and dangers of defending human rights cases. He has already been given a year’s sentence for representing the Amini family, and he doesn’t know what is in store for him when he returns back to Iran, but he is determined to continue the fight.
Previous laureates of the Sakharov Prize include South Africa’s legendary leader Nelson Mandela, Iraqi Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, who fights against the Islamic State (ISIS) abduction of Yazidi women and girls, and Leyla Zana, the first female Kurdish MPs in Turkey who was forcibly removed from the parliament and charged with terrorism for dedicating her parliamentary oath to “the fraternity of Kurds and Turks” in her native language.