First to Stand: The Cases and Causes of Irwin Cotler

‘First to Stand’ follows Irwin Cotler and his team of young activists at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre as they take on the cases and cause of political prisoners and human rights activists battling against the world’s most repressive regimes.

Cotler began fighting for freedom and justice in law school with the landmark case of Russian refusnik Natan Sharansky, for whom he devised his “mobilization of shame” against the human rights violator — essentially, a PR blitz against a superpower to convince them that holding a political prisoner is bad for their image. The strategy led to Gorbachev releasing Sharansky in 1986. Tyrants aren’t amused by someone embarrassing their regime in front of the rest of the world — especially Vladimir Putin. Like others who crossed Putin’s path, Cotler was poisoned in Moscow. But the attempt on his life hasn’t dampened his commitment. He is today, one of the world’s most effective activist in the protection of human rights.

With unprecedented access, we follow Cotler and his team from the streets to the strategy sessions and corridors of power, as he meets with the heads of state arguing passionately for his client’s release. Cases and contributors include:

Masih Alinejad, journalist, who the Iranian government recently tried to kidnap in an assassination attempt interceded by the FBI….

Shaparak Shajarizadeh, named one of the most influential women in the world by the BBC for her protests and arrests fighting compulsory hijab in Iran.

Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger who was sentenced to ten years and a thousand lashes for “insulting Islam” by advocating freedom of speech on his blog. His wife Ensaf is working tirelessly on his behalf. Although Raif Badawi was released from prison in March 2022, The Saudi regime has instituted a ten-year travel ban, so he cannot leave the country. Irwin and his team have been working behind the scenes to have the ban rescinded.

Bill Browder, Putin’s #1 enemy — the first to speak out against Putin and the creator of the Magnitsky Act, the basis of sanctions against Russia.

Amal Clooney, international human rights barrister, who is co-heading an international panel to protect media freedom.

Natan Sharansky, Russian refusnik, who is still fighting for human rights in Israel and around the world.

First to Stand is about committed human rights activists who know if they stand up, it won’t be long before others are standing with them.


  • Year: 2022
  • Duration: 57 & 72 mins
  • Production: DLI Productions
  • Director: Irene Angelico & Abbey Jack Neidik
  • Available Versions: ENG
  • Country of production: Canada

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