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Peaceful fighter

Currently on a tour to promote her new book, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi speaks of the discrimination against women and her campaign for human rights. She is optimistic that she will survive the publication of the book and will continue her peaceful fight for justice in Iran.

  • By Michael Shelden, The Telegraph Group Limited
  • Published: 00:00 April 27, 2006
  • Weekend Review

Currently on a tour to promote her new book, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi speaks of the discrimination against women and her campaign for human rights.

My first thought is that it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to strangle the woman sitting opposite me. Barely five feet tall, she looks like a well-groomed, middle-aged mother - possibly on a spring shopping trip to Los Angeles. Certainly, no one in this mid-market hotel gives Shirin Ebadi a second glance.

One day, perhaps, Hollywood will be fêting her as one of the most remarkable resistance heroines of our dangerous times; but for now, there is less interest in what she is trying to do than in whether her country has the capability to build a nuclear bomb.

It is certainly the case that the plight of ordinary Iranian citizens is hardly the West's chief concern at the moment. Even so, Shirin Ebadi was recognised three years ago with one of the highest honours of all - the Nobel Peace Prize - for risking everything in her dogged pursuit of justice. This, in turn, was three years after she had narrowly escaped being strangled by agents of her own government.

The discovery that she had become a target was undoubtedly the most terrifying point in a decade of legal work on behalf of victims of violence (the clerics hold sway in the courts, but there is still enough semblance of what we would recognise as law to make her career tenable). To show me what the henchmen of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence had in store for her, she puts her small hands together and squeezes.

It was the late 1990s, and dozens of mutilated bodies had suddenly started turning up in the streets and homes of Tehran. All were intellectuals - some of whom had gone public with mild criticisms of the government - and each had been violently put to death.

After Shirin agreed to represent the family of two of the victims, it emerged that the killers had been a "rogue" squad within the Ministry of Intelligence. For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, the state was forced to acknowledge its part in murdering its critics - and it reluctantly gave the go-ahead to a trial.

"They had wanted to intimidate critics like me by committing such crimes in public," says Shirin, in a soft, even voice. "Some victims were cut to pieces and left in pools of blood for their friends or relatives to find. But according to the files I saw, the plan was to strangle me."

She read her own death sentence when the Ministry of Intelligence - under pressure from reformists within the government - agreed to give her legal team limited access to its records. As she was combing through box after box of papers one afternoon in a grimy archive, Shirin came upon a transcript of a conversation between a member of the death squad and a government minister.

One sentence stood out: "The next person to be killed is Shirin Ebadi". She had to read it several times because the print blurred before her eyes.

Delayed plans

Shirin had been spared for one reason alone: officials in the ministry seem to have had qualms about strangling a defenceless mother during the holy month of Ramadan. So they delayed their plans for murder until a more propitious time, but evidently had a change of heart and threw her in prison instead - to teach her a lesson.

Which is how she came to spend the summer of 2000 locked up with common criminals and drug addicts.

It was a hard lesson for a highly educated woman in her fifties who had come of age in a loving home, married well and had brought up two respectable daughters. In some ways, though, she had always known that it could come to this.

Now, like many of her clients, it was her turn to be torn from a modestly bourgeois existence in the suburbs of Tehran. Over the next few weeks, she was blindfolded as guards led her from one cell to another, kicked in the side by one of them, given contaminated water that turned her stomach, and forced to wear a chador that reeked from the stench of prisoners who had worn it before her.

"I was interrogated for hours and hours, and my health suffered," she recalls. "My hypertension grew worse, but they gave me medical attention - it would have been an embarrassment for them if I had died in prison. They would have had to admit responsibility."

Her husband of more than 30 years - Jarvad, an electrical engineer who keeps a low profile - went to court each day for a month to plead for her release. However, the judge seemed to think he was doing Jarvad a favour by keeping such a troublesome wife locked away.

"He joked with my husband and said to him: ?You must be happy. Why don't you go out and enjoy yourself? As long as we have your wife behind bars, you're free to do what you want'."

But Jarvad continued to force the issue of Shirin's release, and the government finally relented, sending her out of prison in an ambulance that dumped her by the side of a busy road. She hailed a taxi to take her home.

It was only after regaining her freedom that she discovered the evidence of the aborted plot to kill her. On the afternoon that she emerged from her research in the state archives, she went home in a daze, wondering how people in the government could so coldly record their plans to take her life.

"How have I created such enemies," she asked herself, "so eager to spill my blood they cannot wait for Ramadan to end?"

Her ordeal has not filled her with hate or fury, as one might expect. As befits a woman who was formerly a judge, she has a calm, orderly view of life and an amazingly resilient belief in the rule of law. Even the tyranny of hardline clerics and their avenging thugs cannot shake her belief in justice.

"We don't have a real democracy yet. But we have laws and elections, and these things must be allowed to develop and must be enforced fairly. As a lawyer, I try every day to get justice for my clients. I have to believe I can get it if I'm going to do my work."

Though many of her friends and colleagues have fled the country, she refuses to seek refuge elsewhere and passionately urges others to return and join her peaceful fight for justice. It's a risky stance and may become even more so after the publication in the West of her powerful new memoir, Iran Awakening. The book gives a vivid picture of life in a repressive society that can't seem to decide whether it wants to operate by the rules of the seventh century or the 21st.

Unable to publish

"It is a memoir - not a critique of the government. But I could not publish it in Iran. I have to go abroad to tell my story," she says - though she knows full well that it will be studied by her enemies.

It was her courageous work as a lawyer in a system stacked against her that brought her to the attention of the Nobel Prize committee. She has been especially active in defending women from the nastier aspects of laws that regard them as second-class citizens.

Wagging her finger, she says with a fresh sense of outrage: "Let me give you some examples of the discrimination against women. If a woman is killed in an accident, her life is valued at only half that of a man. If women appear as witnesses in court, it takes the testimony of two of them to equal that of one man. By law, a man can have four wives. But, thankfully, our culture prevents that from happening. It is a legal matter, and not yet a social value".

To promote her book, she is making a month-long tour of America and Europe. Before our interview on her first stop - Los Angeles has the largest concentration of expatriate Iranians in the US - I wait for her in the lobby. The only recent pictures I had seen of her showed an unadorned round face staring out from under a heavy black scarf - but there is nobody here of that description.

So I am taken aback when we meet to find that the dark lady of the old news photos has been transformed into a brunette with blonde highlights, wearing bright red lipstick, a colourful woven jacket and stylishly cut trousers.

"I would be arrested if I appeared this way in public at home," she says, a little nervously. "But if you go to Tehran, you will see that many women let half of the hair show outside the scarf, which means that we don't accept the law. But we do what we must in order to avoid arrest."

With a twinkle in her eye, she recalls the time in her youth, during the 1960s, when miniskirts were not an uncommon sight in Tehran. She shows me a picture in her book of her wedding, where she looks like any other bride in the West. Then she points to a recent passport photo and sighs at the glum face staring up at us from its black covering.

To help her with our interview, she has brought along an interpreter - an old friend who went to law school with her and now lives in California.

" Shirin was at the top of our class," her friend says, proudly. "She was one of the few women judges in Iran."

When the Shah was overthrown, Shirin shared the general sense of relief that his corrupt reign had ended. She didn't imagine that his government would soon be replaced by an even harsher one, and that it would take from her the career that she had embarked upon at the unusually young age of 23.

"One day in 1980, I was called before a committee and told that I had to work as a clerk in my own court. I was no longer considered capable of being a judge, even though I knew that the man replacing me wasn't as experienced or as educated as I was. And he wasn't as competent. I felt it was such an injustice."

She stiffens for a moment and stares at me like a stern judge delivering a rebuke from the bench. "My only crime was that I was female."

This "crime" was not one that her upbringing would allow her to accept without a fight. Her father - a minor official in the agricultural ministry - had encouraged her from childhood to take education seriously and to prepare herself for a career. His support instilled a sense of confidence in her that has lasted a lifetime. And she has tried to pass this along to her two daughters - who are both completing graduate work (electrical engineering and law) in Canada.

"When they left home, I told them: ?You're only going off to school. You have to come back home to work.' But they are free women, and must be able to do what they think is best."

Does she think they will come back? "Yes," she fires back, decisively. "Why? Because we're a close family. They call me or their father every night."

Though she agrees that Iranians such as her friend the translator should be free to leave the country, she is clearly worried that things will only get worse if the best and the brightest continue to go elsewhere. "If all the educated people go, who will build Iran?"

Optimist

Isn't she worried that the government will decide that it is she who must go?

"I'm an optimist. I always think that tomorrow will be a better day. So I'm optimistic that I will survive the publication of this book and will continue doing my work back home. A lot of people ask me if I'm afraid. To tell you the truth, I am afraid. Fearfulness is an instinct, like hunger. You become hungry even when you try to tell yourself that you're not. So sometimes I feel afraid, yes. But because I've worked in this field for so long, I've learnt to control my fear."

She has also learnt the value of being internationally known.

"Besides the Nobel Peace Prize, I have been given many other awards, including 17 honorary doctorates. Because of this kind of recognition, I have some protection. It is not so easy to get rid of me now. If anything happens to me, you will know about it. And, please, in that case, I hope you will write about it."

It isn't just foreign support that she is relying on; there are literally millions of people in Iran who admire her. When she returned home with her Nobel prize, a crowd of at least a million gathered spontaneously to greet her at the airport in Tehran.

"Flights had to be cancelled that evening because the roads were so jammed and ordinary passengers couldn't get to the airport," she recalls. "And people came to see me despite the government's effort to ban the news of my award. A few independent papers printed the announcement, but there was nothing on the radio or television until 24 hours after the international stories appeared on the internet. Then the authorities allowed one station to broadcast one sentence about the award at 11 at night. That was it."

Any mention of her or her work continues to be banned from the airwaves in Iran. Most of her activity is limited to the courts or to private meetings with her friends and associates - and addressing large groups is out of the question.

She sighs. "I have spoken at university law schools in America, but I can't speak at my own law school in Tehran."

Though she is hopeful that her campaign for human rights will be tolerated, she is not optimistic that the government will change its ways in the near future. She is worried about a possible confrontation with the West over nuclear policy and hopes that negotiations can resolve the problem.

But she thinks that it's a mistake for any government to aspire to the status of a nuclear power before it has surrendered to the democratic will of its people.

"I don't believe any government needs nuclear weapons - neither Iran nor America. But non-democratic countries are the real problem.

"Nobody is afraid of France or Britain using their nuclear weapons; they have to bend to democratic opinion. What matters most is that nuclear science does not continue in any country until the government is in democratic hands."

As for human rights in Iran, she thinks the situation is getting worse - especially for women.

She is currently representing the family of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian freelance photographer who was arrested for "spying" in 2003 and beaten to death by guards at Evin prison - the same place where Shirin herself was held. Also in her fifties at the time she was jailed, Kazemi died of a brain haemorrhage, which the government at first tried to attribute to a stroke.

With typical courage, Shirin stood up in court last summer and accused the guards of "deliberate murder". So far, the judges in the case have been willing to admit only that a "semi-deliberate" killing - whatever that is - may have taken place.

Undeterred, Shirin is prepared to continue pressing for an open trial. Though many people in the West seem willing to forget the death of an innocent middle-aged woman at the hands of her guards in an Iranian prison, Shirin cannot forget. She knows that it might have been her.

"There was nothing accidental about the case," she says. "You don't hit someone accidentally. They were beating her to make her confess. It's murder in the first degree under Iranian law. If we find a fair court, I can prove it. I know that prison - I know they have video cameras running 24 hours a day in the section where she was killed. There is evidence to show what really happened. We will get it. One day, a judge will listen. There will be justice."

Listening to her speak with passion about the case, I can't help thinking that she is like some fictional figure who has come to life from a more heroic age and intends to do the impossible, no matter what the cost. There is a bit of Quixote in her, a little of Winston Smith - and more than a touch of Portia. She is that rare being: a heroine.

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