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Furore Grows Over 'Seized' Ebadi Nobel Prize Medal

  • Ron Synovitz

Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi speaking in Abu Dhabi

Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi speaking in Abu Dhabi

Controversy is growing over the reported seizure by Iranian authorities of human rights activist Shirin Ebadi's 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ebadi disclosed the seizure of her Nobel medal and the freezing of her bank accounts by the Iranian government during an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

The Nobel Committee and the Norwegian government are backing Ebadi and criticizing the seizures. But Iran's Foreign Ministry today is denying that Ebadi's Nobel award was taken.

Ebadi told Radio Farda on November 19 in an exclusive interview from London that Iranian authorities also have been threatening her family in Tehran and appear intent on trying to seize her home there in a bid to end her campaign against human rights abuses in Iran.

"Intelligence Ministry people have told my sister openly that she has to move from her apartment -- which is close to our apartment. Otherwise, for her family and two boys who are students, they say there will be an unpleasant future," Ebadi said.

"On the other hand, all of my bank accounts, including my retirement pension payments, a safe-deposit box and my husband's accounts with his pension funds have been confiscated."

Ebadi said the safe-deposit box belonged to her husband and contained her Nobel medal, her Nobel diploma, and other awards she has received -- including a Legion of Honor medal awarded to her by France and a ring awarded to her by a German association of journalists.

Ebadi said the Iranian authorities who froze her bank accounts are demanding $410,000 in taxes that Tehran claims are owed on her $1.3 million Nobel cash prize. She described those moves as illegal under Iranian law because such prizes are supposed to be exempt from tax.

Iran's Foreign Ministry -- responding to criticism from the Norwegian government about the reported seizures -- denied today Iranian officials had confiscated Ebadi's Nobel medal.

Ebadi is the first Muslim woman to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and the first female judge in Iran. She told Radio Farda she will not be intimidated and that her absence from Iran since June does not mean she feels exiled because of her human rights work.

"[Iranian authorities] want to put pressure on me in this way. But it is not working. Our activities will continue. The Islamic Republic may be angry because I continue these [human rights] activities and I have sent human rights reports to the UN," Ebadi said.

Ebadi said that if authorities in Tehran are angry about criticism of their poor human rights record, it would be better for them to improve the human rights situation in the country. She also urged United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to visit Iran in order to see human rights abuses for himself.

'Shock And Disbelief'

The reported seizure of Ebadi's gold medal and Nobel diploma -- along with the freezing of her bank accounts -- reflects increasingly drastic steps by President Ahmadinejad's regime to squash any criticism or dissent about the Iranian government from within or without the country.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store said it is the first time in the 108-year history of the award that the prize has been confiscated by national authorities. Store said the confiscation left Norwegian officials "feeling shock and disbelief."

The Norwegian Nobel Committee also has expressed shock and dismay about the reported seizures.

Geir Lundestad, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Committee and director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, said the committee was "extremely disappointed."

"Of course, there has been a dispute going on for a very long time between the Iranian authorities and Shirin Ebadi. But this is a stepping up of this dispute which is totally unheard of and uncalled for," Lundestad said.

Attorney Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a founding member of Ebadi's human rights group, said Ebadi's $1.3 million Nobel prize money had been deposited in an Iranian bank account and was being used to help prisoners of conscience and their families.

Dadkhah said the move by Iranian authorities was "politicized" and was "illegal" because a decision on confiscation must be made on the basis of evidence that is presented in an open court. There has been no such evidence in this case.

Ebadi left Iran for a conference in Spain the day before the controversial June 12 presidential election that saw Ahmadinejad returned to office amid allegations of widespread fraud. She has not returned since then.

Instead, Ebadi has been traveling around the world and urging the international community to act against human rights abuses committed by Iranian authorities in the aftermath of the June election.

Thousands of Iranians were initially arrested as mass protests broke out in Iran against a vote tally showing that Ahmadinejad won reelection.

Dozens of Iranians were killed in clashes with security forces, and there are many allegations of torture, rape and murder of opposition demonstrators who were taken to Iranian prisons.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondents Hossein Ghavimi and Armand Mostofi contributed to this report from Prague