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Nobel Peace Prize Winner Ebadi Says Iran Is Like A 'Fire Under The Ashes'

Iranian human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi says Iran's heavy-handed state crackdown could be pushing the country toward a revolution.

The 2003 Nobel laureate said the Iranian establishment has not shown any flexibility toward the demands of Iranians for change and said as a result, the country has become like a "fire under the ashes."

Ebadi, a prominent human rights lawyer who has been living in exile for some two years, was in Washington on April 21 to promote her latest book, speak with journalists, and address a conference on Iran at George Washington University.

She said the limitations on freedom of expression in Iran had expanded to such an extent that people are now being punished even for their thoughts, citing the six-year prison sentence given to prominent film director Jafar Panahi, who she said was tried and jailed for planning to make a documentary about the 2009 postelection unrest.

Ebadi called on the United States to put greater focus on Iran's human rights situation rather than on its murky nuclear program, and voiced her support for political sanctions rather than economic sanctions, which she said hurt ordinary people.

The UN passed a tough set of economic sanctions against Iran last summer after Washington convinced its international allies to punish Tehran for its lack of transparency in its nuclear program.

Political sanctions, Ebadi said, required governments to take punitive steps against human rights violators and reduce diplomatic ties. It also requires the participation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), she said, where rights abusers can be tried in a court of law.

That ability has given the ICC some "serious enemies," Ebadi said, naming Israel, China, Russia, and the United States. There are currently 114 member nations of the ICC, but 45 United Nations member states have neither signed nor ratified the Rome Statute, among them, the United States, which "unsigned" the statute as a way of excluding itself from any legal obligation to the court.

Ebadi said that just as trade had become globalized, justice must be as well, and she urged Americans to speak out in favor of U.S. participation:

"I want to ask you, the progressive citizens of the United States, to put pressure your government to respect international law and ratify the International Criminal Court, the ratification of the U.S. will strengthen the court," she said.

Ebadi also said she was against outside military intervention in undemocratic countries.

"Remember, democracy is not merchandise you can export, democracy cannot be purchased and sent to another country. Therefore war and military attack(s) on non-democratic countries should [not happen]," she said. "Dictators like to be attacked by foreign countries so that under the excuse of national security they can crackdown even more on the opposition."

NATO is currently carrying out a UN-mandated military operation in Libya to protect civilians from attacks by forces loyal to authoritarian leader Muammar Qaddafi. Washington led the push at the UN to pass Resolution 1973 on March 17, which authorized :all necessary means" to protect Libyans in a battle that began as a popular, pro-democracy uprising against the government.

Ebadi's appearance in Washington was part of a tour for her latest book, "Golden Cage."

It's the story of three brothers Ebadi knew: a monarchist, a communist, and an Islamist in post-revolutionary Iran, who each have a tragic destiny. Ebadi told RFE/RL that many Iranians would see parallels in the book to the fate of their own families.

She said she was motivated to write the book by a famous quote from the influential Iranian sociologist scholar Ali Shariati: "If you cannot eliminate injustice, at least talk about it."