Co-written with Aida Ghajar
Every year since 1988, the European Parliament has awarded its Sakharov Prize to a recipient who has dedicated themselves to human rights and freedom of thought.
The prize is named after a legendary Soviet dissident and goes to individuals who, like Andreĭ Sakharov, showed remarkable courage against tyranny.
The award is also sometimes given to entire movements – often through the individuals who best represent the whole.
The award in 2011, for instance, went posthumously to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian man whose tragic self-immolation protest sparked a revolutionary wave across the Arab world.
For 2023 the Sakharov Prize has been awarded to the Woman, Life, Freedom movement which shook Iran and the world last year through its thunderous emergence against the opressive Islamic Republic.
The European Parliament gave the award jointly to Women, Life, Freedom and to the young Kurdish-Iranian woman whose death at the hand of the authorities helped sparked it, Mahsa Jina Amini.
Mahsa’s parents and brother were invited to travel to Strasbourg, one of the seats of the European Parliament, to receive the award in her name.
The family should have been in Strasbourg today to receive the award and the 50,000-euro prize money. But on December 8 when they travelled from their native Saqqez, in Iranian Kurdistan, to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, all three were stopped from boarding their flight.
The authorities confiscated their passports and announced that they were barred from leaving Iran. One person only in the party was allowed to leave for France: Saleh Nikbakht, the family’s lawyer.
Nikbakht has for months represented the Mahsa Amini family as they seek justice for their lost daughter. Today he will also represent them before Europe and the world.
Shortly after he arrived in Paris, Nikbakht sat down with IranWire’s Aida Qajar, during which he spoke of the stressful day at the Tehran airport that ended with the Aminis being barred from travel and of the sentence issued against himself in Iran’s courts and of the family’s relentless pursuit of justice.
Ebullient, confident, you wouldn’t be able to tell that Nikbakht is 78 years old. Born in 1945 in Iran’s Kurdistan province, his long history of activism and legal practice transverses modern Iranian history.
For the last few decades, as Iranian civil society has butted heads with the repressive regime, Nikbakht has represented many of its prominent figures.
One of his former clients is the filmmaker Jafar Panahi who, alongside lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, won the Sakharov Prize in 2012. And in 2009, as the regime cracked down on mass protests, Nikbakht helped represent some of the dozens of activists who were gathered up in Stalinist-style show trials. (IranWire’s founder and editor-in-chief, Maziar Bahari, was a defendant at one such trial.)
Despite all his experience with the regime, however, Nikbakht seems shocked and visibly upset that the Amini family could not travel to receive the Sakharov award themselves. “I am sure you saw it in my face when I arrived,” he tells IranWire. “I was both worried and upset. I am very worried about this situation.”
The three Aminis would have been fitting stand-ins for their daughter – a role that already has played an important part in the spread of the Woman, Life, Freeodm movement. Ashkan, Mahsa’s brother, was the first to speak to the media in the days after her death. And it was her father Amjad who hired Nibakht to sue the government when they issued an obviously faulty forensic report on her death. And her mother Mojgan, who wrote a Kurdish phrase on her grave in Saqqez, inspired a nation with her words; “Dear Jina, you will never die; your name will become a symbol.”
Back in October, when the European Parliament declared that the award would be given to the Mahsa Amini family and the Women, Life, Freedom movement, the family debated who should make the trip to Strasbourg. Mojgan was the most reluctant to go. Nikbakht helped to convince her that it would be great if the whole family traveled together.
The family did question whether the government would allow them to leave the country. Ever since Mahsa’s death in police custody, in September 2022, the family has been “under continuous pressure by various authorities,” says Nikbakht, and has been “repeatedly summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence, the governor’s office, and so on.”
But Amjad Amini did not leave things to chance – he had already enquired with the authorities about their trip.
“Mr Amini had asked me for a letter to tell the authorities about the trip,” Nikbakht says. “I told him he doesn’t need one since the trip was ordinary and legal. But he still asked me to write it. He first gave it to the Saqqez governor’s office. He was told it needed to go to the head of the political department at the governor’s office in Sanandaj, the provincial capital, who is trusted by security and intelligence agencies. The letter was registered in both places.”
“They told him there was no problem with the trip but that he had to be careful with his behavior abroad,” Nikbakht says. “When they came to Tehran [before traveling] to get their visa from the French embassy, there was also no problem.”
But as the family drove back to Saqqez after collecting their visas in Tehran, a trip that takes more than seven hours, the intelligence authorities called Amjad and asked them to turn back for a meeting. The families were already hours away from Tehran at this point, near the central Iranian city of Qazvin, when the call arrived.
“They asked [the family] to stay back in Qazvin and wait for the authorities there,” Nikbakht says. “But Mr Amini said they were busy and had to rush back to Saqqez. He asked the authorities to speak to him via the intelligence offices in Saqqez if they had to.”
The family were never contacted again and assumed everything was fine.
When December 9 came, the day of the family’s flight, the Aminis and Nikbakht made their way to the airport and confident that they would not have a problem. The flight was at 230pm but they arrived at the airport at 10am.
The group checked in, received their boarding passes, paid the exit tax. Then came the security check. Mojgan was first. From behind, the rest of the party could see her arguing with the officer in charge. It was clear there was a problem. Amjad went to join her. Before long the couple were told they had been barred from leaving the country.
Ashkan, who was also leaving to study abroad, was next in line. He was first told the problem might be with his student enrollment. But when he showed the necessary documents, it was confirmed that he too had been barred from leaving the country.
Nikbakht now had a decision to make. He was allowed through security and could leave: bit should he go ahead to represent the family at Tuesday’s historic ceremony?
“I was very upset,” he says. “This family is bereaved. They lost their daughter and Jina’s death didn’t touch just them but many in Iran and around the world.”
Amjad spoke to Nikbakht on the phone and insisted he should go. The lawyer boarded the flight to Frankfurt and made his way to Paris soon after.
Why had the Aminis been turned back while he, who in fact has a jail sentence hanging over his head in Iran, was allowed to leave by the government?
Nikbakht can only speculate. But he is adamant that there were no legal grounds to bar the family as there was no court case against them.
“Maybe they thought the Aminis wouldn’t return,” he says. “But we looked at the government’s online system and the only case registered under their names was as claimants in the homicide division in Tehran. This was their follow-up on Jina’s death.”
When Mahsa Amini’s death was followed by nationwide protests that brought tens of thousands of Iranians to streets, the government launched an unprecedented crackdown. Dozens were killed by security forces while up to 18,000 were arrested. But the Islamic Republic had been careful not to charge the Amini family itself of any crimes – perhaps worried about adding fuel to the fire of the protests which were especially fervent in Kurdistan.
After Nikbakht left for Europe, the Aminis tried to learn more about their travel ban from judicial authorities in Tehran. They were told that a ban on the family leaving Iran had been in place since 2022 and, following a standard policy, was extended every six months. But they had never been told nor were they given a reason for the ban.
The family was told only that the Ministry of Intelligence had asked for them to be barred from leaving the country.
“How can you punish people for something they haven’t yet done?” Nikbakht asks. “They haven’t even reached Europe yet. How did the authorities know what they would say?”
Nikbakht is adamant that he will press on Mahsa’s case despite it going nowhere through Iran’s official channels. He still wants a panel of competent doctors to study Mahsa’s case since, alongside the family, he believes the initial forensic report was faulty.
The report specifically denied that Mahsa had been killed by a blow to her head and tried to use her medical history to imply this explained her sudden demise. But it failed to determine a definite cause for her death. Nikbakht is still bitter that the panel he had put together, including department heads of major medical schools in Tehran, Tabriz, Kermanshah, Mashhad and Shiraz, were not allowed to be involved in the case as experts. “I had specifically picked people who were known to be both religious and very highly regarded,” he says.
But having long weathered the injustices of the Islamic Republic, Nikbakht exudes patience, as someone who knows the struggle is long. He speaks of his worries for the Aminis and smiles as he says he is concerned “but with calm, not anger.”
Nikbakht will face a jail sentence of his own if he returns to Iran. In October he was sentenced to a year in prison and a ban from social media because of interviews he gave to foreign outlets.
Nine interviews were cited in the court as evidence – only two of them concerned Jina’s case. The rest dated back to 2019 and covered issues as diverse as a ban on motorcycle licenses for Iranian women and a protest against Türkiye’s attacks on Syria.
The latter issue especially grates. Like many of his fellow Iranian Kurds, and other human rights activists in Iran and around the world, Nikbakht has been concerned with years of Turkish attacks on Kurdish communities in northeastern Syria.
He signed petitions and gave interviews on the topic and he condemned the attacks as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. And bizarrely he has been handed a jail sentence for such interviews while Iran’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also spoken out against Turkish incursions into Syrian territory.
And while it may seem pointless to engage such a legal system, with no hope of progress, this lawyer is not yet ready to give up.
“Seeking justice will not always get any results,” he says, with a kind of sage detachment. “But it should always be the first resort.”