Shirin Ebadi: A fight to the death but military invasion & sanctions can only make things worse Print E-mail

SPIEGEL ONLINE -- August 29, 2006


"I Will Fight as Long as I'm Alive"

In early August, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi learned through the press that her human rights center in Tehran had been declared illegal. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with her about an Iranian government breaking its own laws and activism in the face of prison -- or worse.

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You have been threatened with arrest unless you close down the Center for Defense of Human Rights in Tehran. But according to Iranian law, NGOs are free to operate.

Shirin Ebadi: The constitution guarantees that social organizations are free to conduct their activities, so long as they don't engage in disorderly conduct, or betray the laws of Islam. "Free" means that they don't need permission. Therefore, an NGO like ours, which is working for human rights, does not need the government's approval.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Yet you filed for permission anyway?


Ebadi: We did -- four years ago. The government insists that NGOs register. This is a contradiction, but we wanted to abide by all the government's requests to prove that we weren't an underground organization. We didn't want to be above the law -- so we went to the Ministry of the Interior and filed a request for permission. They went over our files and didn't suggest anything was wrong. Then, just recently, they decided that we weren't allowed to operate. They denied our request.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The rejection came four years after you made the request for a license?

Ebadi: Yes. And this denial is illegal, against the letter of the law. Everything we've done these past four years has been legal according to the constitution of the Islamic Republic. I assumed that there would have been no problem getting permission from the government. And while this permission was pending, I never thought twice about any of my actions. Everything I've done is legal.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: From the viewpoint of the West, it would seem that providing free legal assistance to those accused of political crimes would hardly endear you to the government. Didn't you expect some sort of a reaction?

Shirin Ebadi, 60, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts on behalf of democracy and human rights in Iran. She became the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to win the prize. Her center, called the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Tehran, provides free legal services to those accused of committing political crimes. She uses her Nobel Prize money to fund the center. In early August, her center was declared illegal, making her subject to arrest.
Ebadi: No. This has all been a complete surprise. We do not disturb the peace and we are not anti-Islamic. For four years, the government had suggested we were legal. I don't know how all of a sudden we can become an illegal organization. One morning I read in the newspaper a press release from the department of the Interior that the Center for the Defense of Human Rights was illegal. I had to read it in the newspaper. I have yet to be personally contacted.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In May, you published your memoirs in the United States under the title, "Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope." Do you think that might have something to do with your current troubles?

Ebadi: They gave no reason. They simply pointed out that we were never granted permission. We respected the law -- they did not. And they offered no explanation. Let me put it this way: I've had a standing request for four years. Until now, no one has tried to shut down the center. And now, all of a sudden, we're told that what we're doing is not legal. Maybe it's because of the book, maybe not. I don't know.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are saying, however, that the Iranian state is the party acting illegally in this situation, and not your center?

Ebadi: I am simply asking: How did we all of a sudden become illegal? We are legal, we have always been legal. We are a human rights organization. We defend people accused of political crimes for free. Yes, the country is breaking the law. The country is breaking its own laws.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are you going to do now?

Ebadi: We're going to continue. I have no choice but to continue. That's our responsibility -- because we, unlike the Interior Ministry, we respect the law. I will fight as long as I'm alive.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Even if this means going to prison?

Ebadi: Yes. I will fight as long as I have to.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for your ongoing support of human rights in Iran. Have you been subjected to other forms of harassment since then?

Ebadi: Harassment is a fact of life for someone pursuing human rights in Iran. Since winning the award I have been called to court three times and accused of subversive activity. I have fought these accusations, of course, and last year successfully overturned a summons.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Nobel Prize, of course, brought you a lot of publicity and placed you and your work in the spotlight. Have you faced unfair or unrealistic expectations since winning the award?

Ebadi: Some people think that the Nobel Prize has given me a golden key with which I can open the doors to all political prisons. But, when I explain to these people that since being awarded the Nobel Prize I have myself been called to court three times and accused of being subversive, and that my own NGO is being banned, well, then people get a more accurate portrait of the situation. They know that I've never been part of the government and that I don't have executive power. My only power is my voice and my pen, with which I speak and write.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you seeking help from the international community?

Ebadi: It's the people of Iran that have to gain their own freedom and human rights improvements. Military action or other punishments against Iran will make the situation for political reformists and human rights advocates in Iran a lot more difficult. I don't think that Iranian human rights advocates need help of that sort from the governments of the West. But I expect people in the West to support freedom-seekers in Iran.

Interview conducted by Cameron Abadi in Tehran