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Closure Of Nobel Winner's Office A Legal Issue, Iran Says

Shirin Ebadi in Geneva on December 10.
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran has said the closing of the office of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi was a legal matter and the authorities would provide security for her if she needed it.

On January 3, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement he was concerned about reports of harassment of Ebadi and urged Tehran to ensure her safety.

The headquarters of Ebadi's human rights group was closed on December 21 on the grounds that it did not have a legal permit for its activities, drawing criticism from Western states and organizations. Iran says the closure is temporary.

Protesters gathered outside her home and office on January 1, accusing her of sympathy with Israel, Iran's arch foe.

Asked about Ban's concerns, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said the action against Ebadi's office was a legal matter and last week's protests showed "spontaneous feelings that must be tolerated."

"This is just a legal matter, and we cannot go against the law," he told a news conference, adding that Iran's tax office also had some queries that Ebadi needed to resolve.

"Nobody in the Islamic Republic should expect to act above law. Why should anyone receive such privileged treatment? Lawyers should be in the forefront of the law and respect it, Qashqavi said. "Iran is a free country and there are no limitations for human rights activists. The way to deal with this is to complete the legal process and receive the necessary permission for activity."

"If she senses any disturbances [toward her] she can make a request and the Islamic Republic will consider providing security guards for her," he said.

Ebadi has repeatedly criticized Iran's human rights record, saying the country had the highest number of executions per capita in 2007 and a growing number of political prisoners.

Iran's government denies it violates human rights and accuses its Western critics of hypocrisy.

Over the years, Ebadi's advocacy of human rights has led to a spell in prison and provoked a stream of threatening letters and telephone calls. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.