Asia-Pacific, Global, Global Geopolitics, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse

Q&A: "I Feared I Could Be Killed in the Mayhem"

Omid Memarian interviews Iranian Nobel Prize Laureate SHIRIN EBADI

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 7 2009 (IPS) - A few days after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Iranian authorities to take immediate measures to ensure the safety of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, she told IPS in a telephone interview from Tehran that police stood by and watched as her house was attacked by a mob.

Graffiti reading "Shirin Ebadi = American" was spray-painted on her office by an unruly crowd on Jan. 1. Credit:

Graffiti reading "Shirin Ebadi = American" was spray-painted on her office by an unruly crowd on Jan. 1. Credit:

On Jan. 3, the U.N. chief expressed great concern about reports that the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist has been threatened, her Centre for Human Rights Defenders closed and its files and computers confiscated, and hostile crowds have mobilised outside her office and home, accusing her of supporting the U.S. and Israel – which the government considers its two worst enemies.

The centre, which has been operating under Ebadi's leadership, was shut down on Dec. 21 on the grounds that it did not have a legal license. Ebadi denies the accusation and says that under Iran's constitution, such organisations do not need a license. She added that an application to register the centre was delivered to Iran's interior ministry years ago.

Analysts believe that Ebadi's quarterly reports on human rights violations in Iran are the primary reason for the crackdown. Since the government refused to issue visas for U.N. human rights monitors to enter Iran for two successive years, the reports were the main source used by the U.N. General Assembly to adopt a resolution expressing "deep concern at serious human rights violations" in Iran in December 2008.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: How do you perceive the accusations in Iran's conservative media that providing information to the United Nations is tantamount to providing information to a foreign state? SE: Reporting on the condition of human rights is not a top secret subject. Our reports are put together with information and articles published in newspapers, or through those who contact us. Every piece of information in those reports is supported by reasoning and documentation.

IPS: Over the past few years, you have talked about threats on your life. Are the latest threats, accompanied by closure of your offices and attacks on your home, different from the other incidents? SE: Yes, they have a marked difference. Whereas they were just threats before, this time they were followed by action. A group of people attacked my home and my law offices, which are located in the same building, chanting "Death to the mercenary author," and "The U.S. and Israel commit crimes and Ebadi supports them."

I was fearful that any moment they might enter my house, and if a murder were to take place in the mayhem, nobody would be able to identify the murderers. Thankfully this did not happen, and they stopped at tearing off my office sign and spray-painting the entrance door.

IPS: Faced with international reactions from world figures regarding your health and safety, including the recent statement by the U.N. secretary-general, Iranian authorities have announced that you are safe inside Iran. How reassuring are these comments for you? SE: Witnessing the police only watch my residence being attacked and doing nothing, I would say any reassurances by the Iranian government are baseless reassurances. I seek God's protection these days, knowing well that the Iranian police did not protect me.

IPS: Regarding such attacks, normally Iranian authorities state that they have no information about the organisers and that these are spontaneous actions on the part of individuals. SE: I don't view this incident at all like that. They didn't come to my home one by one. They had their slogans written on their placards, moving in a group. They had been given my address by someone, leading them to my home.

The Iranian police continually claim any assembly and demonstration must receive special government permits. This is why when students or women activists congregate to protest discriminatory laws, or when workers gather to protest their low income, police show up immediately to disperse them quickly, arresting some.

That day I saw myself how cool and indifferent the police were, standing to the side, only observing my home being vandalised. In fact, I have a legal question now. Do assemblies and protests require permits or not? If this group had been issued a permit, I would like to know which authority issued the permit for them to vandalise the sign to my law practice outside my home. If they didn't have a permit, why didn't the police intervene to arrest them or to issue a warning or to disperse the crowd?

IPS: For many people, your presence is intertwined with the subject of human rights, perhaps somewhat similar to Saeed Hajarian's role in the reformist movement. Everybody knows what happened to Hajarian, the mastermind behind the reformist movement and advisor to President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who survived an assassination attempt, while his assassin was treated kindly later. How valid do you think this comparison to be? SE: My case is not only similar to that of Mr. Hajarian's, it also bears similarities to the case of Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar, who were slaughtered by groups within Iran's Ministry of Information in 1998.

When I was reviewing the "chain murders case" as the Forouhar family lawyer, I read that the men under trial for the murders had stated in their affidavits that when they asked the minister of information, he issued them license to assassinate and kill me. Fortunately, before they had a chance to assassinate me they were arrested during Mr. Khatami's term.

IPS: Did you ever follow up to find out whether those people still have the power to carry out their mission? SE: Those people were all arrested during the chain murders investigations and they were tried. All of them, with one exception, were sentenced to short-term imprisonment and were subsequently released. Only one of them has life imprisonment and I don't know whether he is still in jail or is free on leave.

IPS: Over the past few years, your life has been threatened several times. Has there ever been an investigation by the government into these threats? SE: There has never been any investigation. They have only offered to assign a police security officer to me. Because I have seen the police's performance, and I witnessed their standing on a corner while my house was attacked, I know that a police security officer will in no way solve my problems.

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