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Iran: Nobel Peace Prize Winner Ebadi Facing Death Threats

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

The Iranian government has assigned bodyguards to Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi after she has received one or two threatening letters a day following her return home last month. The stepped-up security underlines both the increasingly effective role many in Iran hope Ebadi will now be able to play in encouraging human rights -- and the degree of resistance she faces from hard-liners.

Prague, 11 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Associates of Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi say the threatening letters began arriving just days after the announcement that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize early last month.

The letters, which have been coming in at the rate of one or two a day ever since, are anonymous but explicit. One is reported to have threatened: "We will not let you enjoy this prize." Unidentified persons also left torn photos of Ebadi outside her Tehran office.

Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a lawyer at Ebadi's Center for Protecting Human Rights, says that as the threats grew, the organization wrote to the Iranian Interior Ministry, urging it to safeguard her life. The ministry responded this week by assigning her bodyguards and a car, despite Ebadi's own protests that she is not in danger and that she is adequately protected by people who love her.

The stepped-up security around the 56-year-old Ebadi underlines both the increasingly effective role many in Iran now hope the Nobel Peace Prize winner will be able to play in encouraging human rights, as well as the degree of resistance she faces from hard-liners.

The Nobel Peace Prize and its check for $1.3 million will be awarded in Oslo, Norway, on 10 December. The prize has catapulted Ebadi to world fame and has forced the Iranian government -- usually the target of her activism -- to place sufficient political value on her life to protect it. But the award also appears to be mobilizing her opponents to work ever harder to discredit her work in an effort to discourage others from emulating it.

Dadkhah told RFE/RL that hard-liners recently seized upon Ebadi's shaking of a male professor's hand at the Tehran Polytechnic University to create a scandal they hoped would damage her image. Shia rules bar physical contact between unrelated members of the opposite sex.

The scandal succeeded in causing the professor to be barred from the university, but it also prompted the most prominent clerical critic of Iran's conservative leadership, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, to issue a special religious ruling defending the professor and Ebadi.

"At Tehran Polytechnic University, she shook hands with a male professor. Consequently, he was barred from attending the university for a year. Ayatollah Montazeri issued a religious decree to make an exception [permitting the handshake under the specific circumstances]. This decree is a significant change in Shia rules," Dadkhah said.

Observers say the efforts to discredit Ebadi have most often centered on portraying her Nobel Prize as a payoff by unnamed states interested in weakening the Islamic Republic. Conservative newspapers like to emphasize that Ebadi once served as a judge under the U.S.-backed government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. One hard-liner, Assadolah Badamchian of the Islamic Coalition Association party, recently denigrated Ebadi's award by saying, "If someone's prize is intended to serve the interests of colonialism and the decadent world, then it is a badge of shame."

Ebadi's conservative critics ignore or dismiss her work as a lawyer representing women and children, which won her the international honor. Ebadi and other human rights activists have sought to challenge laws giving former husbands far greater custody rights over children than mothers. They also have sought to raise the marriage age for children in traditional areas by obtaining a new law requiring parents to obtain court permission for marriages of girls under 13.

The court victories have been particularly hard won because Iran's judiciary is a bastion of opposition to reforms and has frequently ordered that activists be jailed. Ebadi herself spent 25 days in prison in 2000 for making public a videotape of an informant alleging that hard-line officials were involved in political violence.

As Ebadi now likely faces still stiffer conservative resistance due to her international recognition, human rights groups in Iran are taking inspiration from her award and seeking to work more closely with her.

Dadkhah says many social rights groups have contacted Ebadi since she returned to Iran last month from Paris, where she was attending a human rights conference when the Peace Prize was announced. "Many of these kinds of organizations, as well as NGOs, have contacted her," he said. "When she returned from Paris, she clearly announced that she would pursue every effort to cooperate with these [human rights] organizations."

Ebadi is now seeking to heighten domestic awareness of the human rights movement in Iran by requesting that the government issue her Center for Protecting Human Rights a permit to publish a magazine. The permit, if granted, would be despite an ongoing crackdown by the judiciary that has closed scores of reformist newspapers and journals over the past several years.

It remains to be seen how much of an impact Ebadi's Nobel Prize will ultimately have on the Iranian scene.

Mehrangiz Kar is a female Iranian attorney and writer previously jailed in Iran as a reformist activist who now lives in Washington, D.C. She told RFE/RL that the answer will depend on the degree of backing Ebadi receives from ordinary people. "I am optimistic. But resistance has formed against her, and it will continue. This is also quite natural. I mean, if in Iran we did not have hard-liners and reformists, there still would be some resistance against her and her peers," she said. "It is quite difficult, particularly in some strata of Iran, to accept a woman to be in the center of such massive change."

Kar added: "But we have to see what would be the reaction of ordinary citizens, who do not look at matters from the viewpoint of conservatives or reformists. If they react positively, I think the resistance and brutality against her would gradually lessen.

She concluded, "But if ordinary citizens remain neutral or give her little support, the hard-liners, whom I believe to be anti-women, would become stronger and would cause obstacles to prevent her from being active."

For now, Ebadi shows no signs of slowing down in her role as one of Iran's prime human rights motors. The Noble Prize laureate has recently joined the legal team representing the family of the late Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. Kazemi, who was of Iranian descent, died from a blow to the head after being taken into custody for taking pictures outside Tehran's Evin prison. The prison is home to many Iranian activists who have been arrested in recent years for challenging the conservative establishment.
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