Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi says she believes the offices of her human rights center in Tehran were raided and closed by Iranian authorities in retaliation for its influence with the United Nations.
Without warning, 10 to 15 uniformed and plainclothes security agents entered the offices of the Center of Human Rights Defenders in northwest Tehran on December 21 as members, including Ebadi herself, were preparing to belatedly commemorate the 60th anniversary of Human Rights Day.
"We were not given any official explanation, but I can guess what their reason was," Ebadi told RFE/RL. "For the past two years, the Iranian government has not been allowing UN human rights observers to enter the country. And, therefore, all the reports we have been submitting about violations of human rights in Iran have been attracting significant attention from the international community."
Ebadi said that in his report to the UN General Assembly about the human rights situation in Iran, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cited assessments by Ebadi herself and reports by the Center of Human Rights Defenders.
"Following his report, the UN General Assembly condemned Iran for its violation of human rights. This was the main reason for [Iranian officials] to close down our office," said Ebadi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Iran's judiciary said the closure was due to the center's involvement in "illegal" activities, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency.
"The center was acting as a [political] party without having legal permit," the report said. "It had illegal contacts with local and foreign organizations. It had organized news conferences and seminars."
The French presidency of the European Union condemned Iran "firmly and vigorously" for the closure.
In a statement on December 22, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called on Iran to reopen the center and "give it the legal status it has been requesting for many years."
In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said he was troubled by the reports that the center had been closed.
"We believe that these individuals are incredibly courageous to stand up in a society like Iran for the rights of their fellow citizens. So it's something that we're obviously paying attention to," Fratto said.
Ebadi said she will plans to explore "all legal avenues" in an effort to reverse the decision of the authorities.
"If Iranian courts do not give us that right, then I will ask international sources to help us in this regard," she said.
'We Will Continue'
Ebadi said the closure will not stop her and her colleagues from carrying out their work, however.
"Our activities as defenders of human rights have never depended on one office or a building," Ebadi said. "We will rent another place and continue our work. We will continue our activities to defend human rights as long as we are alive."
In the end, she said, the closure of her offices, rather than discouraging human rights activities inside Iran, may actually serve to promote and publicize the cause.
"Now everybody knows that if the Iranian government cannot tolerate the human rights activities of a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, it will not tolerate anybody else," Ebadi said. "Therefore, other [human rights defenders] will increase their activities."