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(Un)Civil Societies Report: August 3, 2004

3 August 2004, Volume 5, Number 14
IRANIAN NOBEL LAUREATE BATTLES FOR RULE OF LAW... "I don't accept this court! We don't accept this court! This court is not acceptable!" Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi cried outside a Tehran courtroom at the trial of Mohammad Reza Aghdam Ahmadi, an intelligence agent accused of killing Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, RFE/RL reported on 18 July. Ebadi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year, and other lawyers, together with Kazemi's mother, walked out of the courtroom in protest. In any event, the proceedings had already abruptly been closed by the judge, once again raising doubts about the efficacy of attempts to use the Iranian justice system for a civil rights struggle.

Still, the strategy of human rights lawyers in Iran has been to participate in judicial proceedings, if for no other reason than occasionally to withdraw cooperation in order to highlight injustices. Earlier, Ebadi's four-member legal team refused to sign the indictment against Ahmadi, contending that prison official Mohammad Bakhshi dealt the fatal blow to Kazemi, AP reported 25 July. Ebadi demanded that the court compel prosecutor Said Mortazavi to testify after a report by reformist parliamentarians said he manipulated evidence and pressured witnesses against Ahmadi, AP reported. Mortazavi's order to Iranian journalists not to report on the accusations against him fueled further doubts, and lawyers could name him as a suspect if they re-file the case, AFP reported on 25 July.

In the absence of a verdict, the court ordered the payment of traditional "blood money" as compensation. The amount is said to be $19,000 for a Muslim man but about half that amount for a woman or non-Muslim, AP reported.

At first, authorities claimed the Iranian-born Canadian journalist Kazemi died of a stroke while in custody in July 2003 after her arrest outside a prison filled at the time with antigovernment protesters, UN Wire reported on 4 May. A commission later concluded that she had died from a fractured skull and brain hemorrhage, and her mother said her daughter's body bore other signs of trauma. Eventually, human rights activists found she had died after a 77-hour interrogation and began to raise questions about prison officials' responsibility for her death.

Ebadi has vowed to appeal the dismissal of the case through Iranian courts and then turn to international bodies to obtain justice for Kazemi, AP reported on 25 July. While family and supporters talked about taking the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, this would not be feasible as the ICJ is designed for international disputes, not individual human rights cases. The International Criminal Court (ICC), established to deal with war crimes, also would be unlikely to take such a human rights case; but in any event Iran is not a party to the ICC. Appeals to the United Nations would likely involve drawing various human rights-related offices into applying pressure on Iran to bring about justice in the Kazemi case -- pressure that might not come, given political considerations by members of the UN's highest bodies.

Ebadi's public condemnation of the miscarriage of justice in this trial and her calls for international pressure on Iran's government follow a long career in justice in which she has always attempted to work within the system, invoking both domestic and international law. Hope in the ability of the judiciary to reform and the interest and efficacy of international bodies still represent a moderate approach that presumes the regime is susceptible to change without being overthrown.

At the Council on Foreign Relations during a trip to the United States in June, Ebadi told an audience of New York attorneys and other professionals -- including some Iranian exiles -- that as a lawyer and human rights advocate, she had stayed out of politics as such and tried to work with existing legal norms and agreements by which Iran was bound. Ebadi spoke through a Farsi interpreter and, as in her other appearances in the West, wore a black business suit without any head scarf over her short-cropped hair.

She cautioned that Iranian civil society, by contrast with that in the United States or Europe, was still very weak and expectations should be curbed. When the nongovernmental Society for Human Rights Defenders was founded, "the first human rights NGO...could not achieve anything in reality," she said. She acknowledged the role of the NGO's founder, Dr. Abdol-Karim Lahiji, a professor of law and noted human rights figure who was in the audience and who now leads the Paris-based Iranian League of Human Rights in exile.

As in other transition settings, not only the Iranian government's perspective on human rights has been negative but also the view of ordinary people. Ebadi recalled that the press would pejoratively call her "a feminist" and this affected public opinion toward defenders of human rights. Yet she feels that today human rights are more established as a concept in Iran and "protecting human rights has gained a social respect and value," she said. "The situation in Iran, compared with 24 or 25 years ago, is much better," she explained, in part because ordinary people have begun to pursue their rights.

When the Society for Human Rights Defenders began working on behalf of political prisoners, the government looked askance at attorneys willing to accept such cases. Almost all the lawyers went to jail, including Ebadi. Her colleague and client, Dr. Nasser Zarafshan, was jailed in 2002 and sentenced to five years in prison and 70 lashes for allegedly "disseminating state secrets" and possessing firearms and alcohol. Ebadi and other supporters have maintained his innocence and said his sentence is retaliation for his criticism of the official investigation into the murders of writers and activists in 1998, known as the "serial murders" case. The lawyer was recently granted a 48-hour furlough, the first in nearly a year, VOA News reported 28 June.

Ebadi said her society's three purposes -- defending prisoners of conscience, supporting families of such prisoners, and taking public positions on human rights in Iran -- would continue to be relevant. She described the group as "the first true human rights NGO in in human rights" because it is unrelated to any government body; nor does it receive funds from the government nor receive any outside financial report. Although she and her colleagues had suffered for their work, "this imprisonment has not caused any feeling of vengeance in us," she commented. Rather than becoming bitter and harsh in criticism, the lawyers "tried to keep our own independence and neutrality. If we talk about difficulties and problems, similarly, if we see anything good we talk about that too," she added. Neutrality meant that she would condemn flaws in the law as well as praise advancements.

Ebadi spent many long years serving as a clerk in a court where eventually she was able to obtain credentials as a judge when it was recognized that Muslim law did not preclude women becoming judges. Far from radicalizing her, the long wait sharpened her determination to work patiently within the system. Her moderate stance is similar in spirit to another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Andrei Sakharov, who tried to use existing domestic and international human rights standards and mechanisms to address Soviet human rights problems strictly on their own terms, unlike other activists and parliamentarians who spearheaded more radical political movements to challenge the government directly.

While international attention remains riveted on the beatings and torture of student demonstrators, Ebadi said she feels it is important to point out some great advancements in Iran that have meant something for ordinary people in ways that more abstract political freedoms often do not. This year, after quiet lobbying by lawyers such as Ebadi, the law on maternal custody of children was finally changed. Now, after a divorce, a woman may keep her children until the age of 7, with support to be provided by the father. Previously, boys could be taken by the father and his relatives until the age of 2, and up to the age of 7 for girls. Provision is made for the courts to settle custody battles in the best interests of the child. The practice of taking very young children from their mothers on demand by estranged husbands caused great suffering for both women and children, and rectifying this type of injustice has a visible and widespread effect.

Changing this law also gave a sense of empowerment to Ebadi and her group, and arguably vindicated the approach of working more quietly from within to change what could be changed. "Therefore you see, that although we have problems and faults -- big outstanding faults in the laws -- but we also have had victories," she told the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations. With such incremental changes, "we hope that one day the government of Iran will respect all its international obligations concerning human rights."

...AND URGES INTERNATIONAL BODIES TO PROMOTE HUMAN RIGHTS. Activists and exiles in Ebadi's audiences in the United States and Europe who have debated the merits of the moderate struggle and wished for more forceful action from inside Iran were compelled to admit there are real limitations: For her work, Ebadi had already sat in a jail cell not much larger than the luncheon tables where her audiences were dining. Her solitary confinement was not as long as other lawyers, and she appeared willing to make the sacrifice again; but her story was a silent testimony to the limits of human rights activism. Personal suffering was not the core of her message, however. Rather, just as she was attempting to work the levers of the judicial system with all its flaws in Iran, in various meetings in the United States and the United Kingdom while abroad, she urged her Western supporters to use the often cumbersome international system to promote human rights in Iran.

Last year, a resolution condemning human rights problems in Iran, including Zahra Kazemi's death, was passed in the UN General Assembly, with significant opposition and efforts by Iran to find moral and legal equivalency in the death of an Iranian detainee in Canadian custody. The motion failed to materialize in the more high-profile UN Commission for Human Rights. Trying to forestall the dismissal of a draft resolution, Ebadi called the commission's silence "an insult for democrats and human rights defenders in Iran, who struggle for fundamental rights in spite of the risks for their freedom," AFP reported on 14 April. Iran has signed the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has been criticized for its practices by the commission and special rapporteurs in the past. But in recent years, countries concerned about Iran's repression have argued that such public condemnations do little to influence the regime's behavior. Desirous to acknowledge some modest improvements in Iranian law if not practice, and to show appreciation of reformers and their difficulties, the international community has not worked very strenuously to expose and condemn Iran's human rights record. A host of other considerations come into play with Iran, ranging from political exigencies in the region particularly with the war in Iraq and disputes about Iranian nuclear capacity, and the calamities that have fallen Iran such as devastating earthquakes.

The UN has not formally examined Iran's compliance with human rights obligations since 1993, although Iran signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Conventions less contentious for Iran, against racism and for children's rights, have had more attention as recently as 2003. Statements on Iran are rare, but the international notoriety given to Kazemi's case elicited more response. UN special rapporteurs on press freedom, judges, and torture combined in a statement released by on 27 July to express "profound concern" about the "unanswered questions" of the case, saying they fear such cases "are favoring a climate of impunity." A planned visit by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances scheduled for 25-28 July was postponed until at least October 2004 at the request of the government, the second such postponement in a year. A visit from the rapporteur on freedom of expression was similarly postponed. International groups frequently single out Iran for condemnation and express concern about their colleagues inside the country, but can then face retaliation. An Argentinean group that attempted to have a speaker on Iran at the commission was reprimanded by Iran for supposedly allowing a terrorist into their midst and put under examination by a UN committee to review its accreditation. Eventually the case was dismissed.

The difficulties in trying to raise human rights both internally and externally have led to consideration of conditionality in lending. In an op-ed piece in "The New York Times" on 17 June, Shirin Ebadi and University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran argued that the World Bank should use human rights criteria to determine whether its aid should continue, and should differentiate more between democracies and dictatorships. Critics of conditionality often counter civil rights concerns by reasoning that foreign aid can provide social needs. Ebadi and Attaran argued that the Iranian government's borrowing of money for providing social services was not really improving lives and "to lend money to tyrants is to strengthen them and to become complicit when they stamp on their peoples' rights," they wrote. Ebadi and Attaran suggested in their essay a "human rights scorecard" to rank governments according to such issues as press freedom and the rights of women as well as access to health, education, and property. International human rights groups have also called for more conditionality in loans and project support, and the World Bank has responded by accepting more input from nongovernmental groups, but most members of international financial institutions believe that lending to poor nations, even if corrupt and oppressive, adds to stability.

The laborious process of getting Iran's signature on human rights treaties, then pressuring for compliance is one that advocates of human rights both inside and outside of Iran, have still found a worthy exercise. Last year, Iran's Guardians Council defied the will of parliament and rejected the legislature's approval of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, claiming it was against Shari'a law and the Iranian Constitution. The reform-oriented parliament had ratified the treaty in a bid to support women's rights at home, and as with efforts to get Iran to report on human rights and admit the UN rapporteurs, faced rebuff.

Such disdain for international norms should not be construed as inherent to Islam, Ebadi cautioned. In a conference at the UN on women and Islam during her trip to New York in June, Ebadi discounted some Western notions that Muslim law can prove antithetical to human rights. "There is no conflict between Islam and human rights. One can be a Muslim and respect human rights," UN Wire quoted her as saying 3 June. Some regimes "hide behind the shield of Islam" to violate human rights, she explained, adding that "cultural relativity cannot be permission for violating human rights. On the pretext of Islam, once cannot ignore human rights."

Contrary to expectations of some U.S. groups pushing the UN to promote parity of men and women in legislative and other branches of government among UN members, Ebadi denied that the mere presence of women as such could mean progress for women's rights. "I do not believe that if women reach power, the society would necessarily be a democracy," she said, pointing to the six women in the 33-member Iranian cabinet who appeared to have little influence. Their existence could only be a positive message for human rights if the performance of the cabinet changes and earns public confidence, she said.

Ebadi also used the occasion of her UN speech to criticize the United States, speaking of "disregard" for some UN resolutions and agreements and a policy to spread democracy in the Middle East that she saw as flawed. "Democracy is not a present to offer a nation. Democracy cannot be imposed by dropping bombs on people," she said about the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. If the United States and other Western powers wish to contribute to democracy, they must do so not by military attack, she cautioned, but through the United Nations.

Using the venue of the UN to address Iran has had mixed success, international human rights activists have found. On the one hand, the process of examination by treaty bodies or the occasional resolution condemning the worst practices have some kind of impact, they argue, if only to provide some modicum of protection to those jailed for their beliefs and for human rights work.

Yet activists who have attempted to leverage the UN's influence directly in Iran have become less confident of that route for change. They recalled such international meetings as the regional preparatory conference for the UN World Conference Against Racism held in Tehran in 2001, where Tibetan, Jewish, and Dalit groups were denied accreditation on ideological grounds. NGO representatives who agreed to attend were told to wear head scarves and reprimanded if they slipped to their shoulders during the meeting. A photographer from an English-language newspaper, "Tehran Times," caught both Indian and European women with their head scarves down, and an article appeared headlined "A Shameful Display," saying such behavior was an "affront and insult to the Islamic values of the country."

Women NGO activists representing national, regional, and international organizations then issued an open letter to Mary Robinson, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, protesting what they saw as her inability to negotiate a forum "free from all forms of discrimination and that respected cultural diversity without intolerance," one conference-goer from Isis International in Manila reported in an e-mail message at the time. When the leader was read out publicly, a conservative Iranian women's group condemned the Western and non-Western women at the meeting who had failed to observe the rule of head scarves and other dress, accusing them of "cultural insensitivity" and demanding they observe the country's dress code, which was law.

Efforts to structure "dialogues" between the groups at the conference caused some foreign participants to feel that the women they were dealing with were not really representing an independent view but were sponsored by the government. They were also left critical of UN officials who they felt should have pushed harder against the imposed dress code. Robinson, who herself wore a head scarf while announcing that she would have preferred not to, said the UN had been compelled to accept Iran's hosting of the regional conference because other countries in Asia had not stepped forward, said NGO activists. After these confrontations, some women kept their shawls on their shoulders in defiance of the directive from a UN staff person who warned that even South Asian saris would not be acceptable to conform to the Iranian dress code. Others silently donned the head scarves or put them on in unusual ways to call attention to the fact that they were complying with the request under duress. They cited as an additional factor of pressure their fears that one of the local community organizers active at the UN conference, the Organization for the Defense of Victims of Violence, which had already experienced harassment, would be further persecuted for the behavior of foreign colleagues at the meeting. Later some NGOs bent over backward, apologizing for the actions of some defiant women at the conference, explaining that they did not wish to challenge Iranian law and that they had not wanted to offend any sensitivities of Iranian society.

The experiences of this meeting, like others in Iran and other conservative Islamic countries, have left foreign NGOs wondering how best to support their colleagues without endangering them. Some Muslim women advocates have advised wearing head scarves, and not making an issue out of them, in an effort to work on those "doable" issues such as family law and custody that might actually be changed and could ameliorate some suffering. Putting on head scarves, but then not speaking out on at least some issues, is a missed opportunity, they say. Others say distinction should be made between the need to wear head coverings in sacred places such as mosques, versus the decision not to bend to conservative wishes in a business or international setting.

Human rights advocates both inside and outside of Iran may differ on strategies, but they agree that publicizing abuses of human rights, and supporting in public statement those who attempt to chronicle and defend rights, remain the most effective tool of support.

WOMEN'S RIGHTS. Isis International Manila is a women's organization focused on advancing women's rights and leadership in Asia and the Pacific (English). Statements about the 2001 conference in Tehran can be found at and 00006.doc

Women's Learning Partnership maintains a website with directories of women's organizations around the world, publications and resources for women, and profiles of women leaders (in English with some Arabic documents available). The founder and president is Mahnaz Afkhami of Iran. Materials include RealAudio files of Muslim women leaders from around the world talking about the issues they face in their societies and such challenges as bridging the gender gap and digital divide in media and communications.

Women Living Under Muslim Laws is an organization devoted to studying the diversity of women's experience in Muslim countries and the plurality of legal codes existing in various cultural, social and political contexts. Frequently WLUML publishes "urgent action" statements on behalf of women persecuted for promoting internationally-recognized women's rights. July publications include summaries of presentation on women's rights and women and the media in Iran made by non-governmental experts to the Asia Pacific NGO Forum held in preparation for the 10th anniversary of the UN women's rights conference in Beijing.

Human Rights Watch released a report five years after the 1999 Tehran university protests urging release of those imprisoned.

The same organization also critiqued the recent EU dialogue with Iran at

HRW's 73-page June report on Iran, "Like the Dead in Their Coffins," is a comprehensive updated study on arrest and torture in Iran.

Mehregan is a publication of the Iran Teachers Association (in Farsi with English abstracts). Back issues contain articles by Abdol-Karim Lahiji and other human rights advocates.