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Iran: Nobel Peace Prize Goes To Female Lawyer Ebadi

Prague, 10 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi has won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2003.

Ebadi has been a leading figure in the struggle for the rights of women and children in Iran. The 56-year-old Ebadi is known for representing the interests of persecuted individuals and has braved reprisals for her beliefs.

The head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Ole Danbold Mjoes, announced today that the prize would be going to a Muslim woman for the first time: "The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2003 to Shirin Ebadi for her efforts for democracy and human rights."

In its citation, the committee said that Ebadi is a "conscious Muslim" -- that she sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights. It is important to her, the committee said, that the dialogue between the different cultures and religions of the world should take, as its point of departure, their shared values.

"She has focused especially on the struggle for the rights of women and children," Mjoes said. "As a lawyer, judge, lecturer, writer, and activist, she has spoken out clearly and strongly in her country, Iran, and far beyond its borders. She has stood up as a sound professional, a courageous person, and has never heeded the threats to [her] own safety."

Ebadi says she hopes the prize will encourage other Muslim women around the world and their fight for equal rights. In an interview with Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after today's announcement, she said: "I am very happy and hope that the prize can contribute to the struggle for human rights in Iran."

Jasmshid Zand is a journalist with RFE/RL's Radio Farda. He says it is significant not only that an Iranian has won the Nobel prize, but an Iranian woman.

"It is the first time in the history of Iran that an Iranian has won this prize and, especially in the Islamic society of Iran, with the Islamic government of Iran, a woman winning this prize -- it means a lot for the whole population, especially women in Iran."

Zand says Ebadi has given a voice to Iranian women.

"She was outspoken and this made a big difference in the society of Iran. Women, they don't have much of a voice [in Iran], and she dared to [talk about] some issues and increase the pressure over them, and few women could do that -- and that is the reason that she is famous in Iran and outside. She has also won several international prizes from [the literary organization] PEN and different organizations for her work on these issues."

Ebadi was one of Iran's first female judges. She was forced to resign her position following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when conservative Islamic clerics took control and introduced severe restrictions on the role of women in society.

She now works as a lawyer and also teaches at the University of Tehran. As a lawyer, Ebadi has been involved in a number of controversial political cases. She was the attorney for the families of the writers and intellectuals who were victims of serial murders in 1999 and 2000. She also has worked actively to reveal who was behind the fatal attacks on students at Tehran University in 1999. As a consequence, Ebadi has been imprisoned on numerous occasions.

In an interview with RFE/RL in January 2000, Ebadi spoke about the need for higher judicial standards in Iran: "A confession made by one or more people accused is not sufficient [to prove a crime] unless there is more evidence. Otherwise, [the confession] is unworthy of judicial investigation."

RFE/RL's Zand was asked about the impact Ebadi's choice is likely to have on Iranian politics.

"In the impact on the future, especially of women's rights, [Iran] will have a voice, an internationally recognized voice after this period. And this can give her leverage to publicize and to do more in getting women's and children's rights [on the agenda] in Iran."

Zand continues: "Women in Iran, they don't have rights that Western societies have. They don't enjoy that kind of freedom. So she will have a symbolic role."

Ebadi was chosen from a list of 165 candidates said to include Pope John Paul II and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. Nobel watchers cited by Reuters believe Ebadi was chosen as a way of promoting change, rather than rewarding the Pope or Havel for a lifetime of work. Those analysts suggest that by awarding Ebadi the Nobel prize, the Nobel Committee is likely supporting the drive for more democracy in Iran.

The prize is worth 10 million Swedish crowns (about $1.3 million) and will be awarded in Oslo on 10 December.