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Fellow Nobel Laureate Concerned For Iranian's Safety

Nobel Peace Prize winner Williams says Iranian authorities "have to be serious about protecting her, not pretending and saying one thing to the international community and then behaving a different way at her house."
Iran said on January 5 that there was no need for any international concern over Shirin Ebadi's safety and that the government will protect her, as it protects each and every Iranian citizen. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi also said that security would be provided for the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner if she requested it.

The comments came amid widespread international concern over Ebadi's safety following several incidents -- including the closure of her center in Tehran and a protest by hard-liners outside her residence who accused her of an Israeli bias regarding the Gaza crisis. In recent days, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the European Union, and a number of rights group have called on Tehran to ensure Ebadi's safety.

Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jodie Williams (1997), who along with Ebadi and several other Nobel Peace laureates established the Nobel Women's Initiative in 2006, tells RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari that she remains concerned about the safety of her Iranian colleague.

RFE/RL: Iran has said that there is no need for any international concern over Shirin Ebadi's well being and that the government will protect her like it does for every other Iranian citizen. What is your reaction to these comments? Do you feel relieved?

Jody Williams: I wish I could feel relieved but I don't. She has been under sustained attack now for quite some time, first starting of course in the media and then with the closing of her center on December 21, then the intervention in her personal office and the confiscation of her computer and her files on [December] 29. And most recently of course, about 150 people outside her house screaming at her, defacing her office. I think we all have cause for great concern.

RFE/RL: The Iranian government says that the closure of Ebadi's office is a legal issue and that the protest outside her house was not serious. But you and other people, including Ebadi herself, believe that she has been targeted because of her activities, namely her reports on human rights violations in Iran. Why do you think Iran has stepped up pressure on Shirin Ebadi now?
It's kind of hard to imagine that if they're willing to attack one of the most well-known human rights defenders in Iran publicly, what they are going to do to other people.

Williams: Because they are not friends of human rights, unfortunately. We've watched this unfold with regard to Dr. Ebadi in the past few months; but if we look at the history of the Iranian government's actions toward human rights defenders, it does not have a very lovely record. Therefore it's extremely difficult to believe anything they say when it comes to the safety of my close friend and colleague Dr. Ebadi. They've arrested her before, this is a very similar kind of behavior toward her before her last arrest and we're concerned that they're trumping up charges against her to be able to arrest her again.

RFE/RL: What steps should Iran take to keep Ebadi from harm? And what more can be done internationally? There have been already calls by the UN, the EU and others to make sure she is safe.

Williams: For example when the 150 people were surrounding her office which is also her home, she called the police immediately and for the longest time they just stood there and watched the people. They did not intervene, disperse the crowd and make them go away, which is what would happen if they were really trying to protect Dr. Ebadi. I think they have to be serious about protecting her, not pretending and saying one thing to the international community and then behaving a different way at her house.

I would ask that everybody who believes in human rights defend the defenders of human rights. Shirin Ebadi and people like her put their lives on the line all the time. Anybody listening who has the ability to write to the Iranian government, for example asking that her rights be protected and promoted should do so. Each and everyone of us can take steps to make the world a better place.

RFE/RL: How do you think the growing pressure on Shirin Ebadi is going to affect the human rights situation in Iran?

Williams: It's kind of hard to imagine that if they're willing to attack one of the most well-known human rights defenders in Iran publicly, what they are going to do to other people. She is the most prominent, of course, but others have been harassed over the past months as well -- it's not just Dr. Ebadi -- which is what makes it even more frightening.

Another grave concern is with the confiscation of her computers and files, confidential information about her clients is put at risk. She is gravely concerned that people she is charged with defending are now at greater risk because of some of the information that they have confiscated. It is not a pretty picture.

RFE/RL: How should Ebadi and other rights activists in Iran respond to the growing pressure on them?

Williams: I wish they didn't have to keep working the way they are working but that's the only course of action they have, that's why I hold them in such high regard. Dr. Ebadi continues her work despite intense pressure, despite the death threats against her and her daughter. All of her colleagues continue their struggle in the defense of people who defend human rights, in the defense of political prisoners, in the defense of the defenseless, in the face of the threats against them, they don't stop their work, they seriously believe in what they’re doing, they believe that basic human rights are universal and they believe they have the right to defend people who should have their rights observed, promoted and protected. I think they're very courageous.

RFE/RL : In 2007, you and Shirin Ebadi called on the Bush administration to hold constructive talks with Iran. Are you planning to renew your call once President-elect Barack Obama is in office?

Williams: Absolutely. I don't think anything can be gained by isolation. I think it's critically important that governments, citizens, everybody be engaged in dialogue. When people are isolated, it's very easy to create a climate of fear -- which is partly what we see with the Iranian government, isolating the people in the country [and] one of the human rights defenders. A couple of weeks back, before Shirin was attacked, she was trying to leave the country to receive a human rights award and they confiscated her passport -- they would not let her leave. When you isolate people, you can very easily create climates of fear. I want to see President Obama engaged in direct dialogue with the Iranian government, yes.

RFE/RL: What do you say to those who believe it's not possible to have a rational dialogue with the Iranian establishment because of its behavior? You yourself said that Iran is not a friend of human rights.

Williams: Well, the same could have been said about the Soviet Union, except there was direct discussion. [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev began opening the country and things changed. Even though they were gross violators of human rights, even though they had the gulag. The best way to engage is with direct discussion, not isolation.