UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist dubbed “Iran’s Nelson Mandela,” receives the 2023 Brown Democracy Medal from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, marking the 10th anniversary of the award.
Sotoudeh has dedicated her legal career to representing opposition activists in Iran, minors facing unjust punishments and women protesting against Iran’s mandatory hijab law. Her clients include Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and pro-democracy activist Heshmat Tabarzadi.
Because of this work, Sotoudeh has been repeatedly imprisoned by the Iranian government for crimes against the state. She served a sentence from 2010 to 2013 and was sentenced again in 2018 to 38 years and six months in prison and 148 lashes.
“I am deeply touched by the love and kindness behind the Brown Democracy Medal,” said Sotoudeh. “Those of us who are working for democracy in Iran are not doing anything particularly exceptional or outstanding. The obstacles we face in Iran are extraordinary.”
Sotoudeh is also a longtime opponent of the death penalty. She co-founded the Campaign for Step By Step Abolition of the Death Penalty organization in 2013 to advocate for anti-death penalty legislation in Iran. In 2022 she received the Robert Badinter Prize at the 8th World Congress against the Death Penalty.
In October 2020, Sotoudeh went on a 46-day hunger strike to protest the poor health situation and risk of COVID-19 in Iranian prisons. She is currently on medical leave from prison but could be recalled at any time.
“This award is a recognition of the broader pro-democracy movements in Iran and the role that women play in this regard,” Sotoudeh said. “Democracy is something that has global meaning and resonance. We must shift understanding from East to West and together protect this sacred heritage.”
Chris Beem, associate director of the McCourtney Institute and associate research professor of political science, said Sotoudeh is showing the world what it means to stand up for democracy in the most trying of circumstances.
“Nasrin Sotoudeh’s courageous work in defense of human rights and the rule of law in Iran is grounded in her equally unwavering commitment to democracy,” Beem said. “That’s why she’s so worthy of the Brown Medal; She is an inspiration to Democrats around the world.”
Sotoudeh will not be able to travel to University Park to accept the Brown Medal. Filmmakers Jeff Kaufman and Marcia S. Ross, who directed the 2020 documentary Nasrin, will accept the award on their behalf at the medal ceremony on October 26.
Kaufman and Ross have known Sotoudeh since 2016 and said they were honored to share their story with the Penn State community at the awards ceremony. In 2021, Kaufman wrote that Sotoudeh reminded him of a young John Lewis leading a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
“Nasrin is a courageous supporter of religious and ethnic minorities,” Kaufman said. “That’s a key element that made me want to do the documentary and it’s one of the reasons she’s a great role model for America.”
As part of the Brown Medal awards, Sotoudeh will write a book about her work and the connection between human rights and democracy, which will be published by Cornell University Press this fall.
Established in 2014, the Brown Democracy Medal is donated by Larry and Lynne Brown to recognize new and innovative science or practice in democracy. Both are Penn State alumni, and Larry is the chair of the McCourtney Institute’s visitors’ committee.
Past recipients include the United States United Democracy Center, Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and Srdja Popovic, founder of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies.