Nobel laureate pounds home message: Focus on human rights abuses in Iran

Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, spoke in Los Angeles recently.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi supports the international deal offering Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curtailing its nuclear program for more than a decade. But she worries that not enough attention is being paid to addressing human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic.

The activist attorney has worked on some of the country’s most high-profile cases, including the killing of a college student pushed out of a window during pro-democracy protests in 1999 and an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died of injuries suffered while imprisoned in 2003.

Ebadi, 68, was one of the first women in Iran to serve as a judge. But after the country’s 1979 revolution, she was demoted to a position equivalent to a clerk. After taking early retirement, she represented victims of abuse pro bono, joining with like-minded lawyers to found the Center for the Defense of Human Rights.


She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to receive the honor. But within a few years, the center was shut down and a number of her colleagues were imprisoned.

Ebadi has lived in exile since 2009. She was interviewed during a recent trip to Los Angeles to deliver a speech at the Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Cal State San Bernardino. Here are edited excerpts:

The nuclear deal was controversial in both Iran and the U.S. What is your opinion of the accord?

I am against the nuclear policy of Iran because this is a very expensive program. Although there is a lot of sun in Iran, we have not invested in solar energy. We could have had wind energy, but we haven’t invested in that either. And as you know, we have the largest gas reserves in the world, a lot of oil.

Therefore we didn’t need a nuclear program, and I am glad that our government was finally able to reach an agreement, and at least part of the program was stopped.

You have expressed concern in the past that Western countries are too focused on preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and not devoting sufficient attention to human rights conditions. Is that still a worry?


Yes, I’m still concerned. Because when it comes to trade agreements, human rights are always forgotten.

I have to add that after the nuclear deal was agreed, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran announced that there will be no change in either domestic or international policy. And the new president has not had any impact on the betterment of the situation of human rights in Iran.

I may even add that after the deal, the situation of human rights deteriorated. The reason is that the government wants to prove that it has not weakened. It’s a show of power.

For example, during the last weeks, two underaged people were executed. In Iran, one person is executed every seven hours. After China, Iran has the most number of executions in the world.

President Hassan Rouhani is widely seen as a reformer. You don’t see him that way?

[Former President Mohammad] Khatami was a reformer as well, and I think he was much more moderate than Mr. Rouhani. But was Mr. Khatami able to implement his programs?


So why was it that he wasn’t able to do it? Because pursuant to the Constitution of Iran, all the powers remain with the supreme leader. Therefore elections of presidents do not really impact the situation.

What would you like the U.S. and other countries to be doing?

There’s a lot that can be done. I am against the economic sanctions imposed on Iran, because they hurt the people. My proposal is that people who violate human rights be personally sanctioned, so that they cannot travel. If they do have any property or money [overseas], that that money be confiscated for the benefit of the people of Iran. Let’s make the world smaller for dictators.

Also when trading with Iran, be careful that you don’t get involved in dirty trading. For example bribes, corruption. If there are products that are made by children, don’t purchase those. Also, if you buy products, try to look for gender equality among the workers who make them.

You were asked to speak at Cal State San Bernardino on the subject of fighting Islamic extremism. What advice would you give?

I always say, instead of bombs, throw books at ISIS [a common acronym for Islamic State].

ISIS is using the ignorance of people and also the religious beliefs of people. We have to give voice to modern Muslims and show Muslims that what ISIS is doing has nothing to do with real Islam.


If we continue to fight ISIS as we are, even in 50 years we won’t get anywhere.

You have a new memoir coming out next year, your second.

The first book that I wrote was called “Iran Awakening,” and it was my memoirs until 2003. Ten years after the Nobel Peace Prize, I decided to write another book, covering those years from 2003 until 2014. In this book, through my own story, I’m talking about the situation of human rights in Iran.

When I won the Nobel Peace Prize, the government did not even want to announce it on the radio. But people protested, and what happened was that on the 11 p.m. news they just said one sentence about it, once, and that was it.

Using the Nobel prize money, I purchased a condominium and created an office for the [human rights] center, and the rest of the money I deposited in the bank and used the interest to help the families of political prisoners.

But the government got angrier and angrier at me every day.

In 2008, they attacked my NGO [nongovernmental organization] and closed it down. In 2009, when the [opposition] Green Movement started, they attacked my office. They arrested my colleagues. At the present time, some of them are in prison.

In order to put pressure on me, they arrested my husband and my sister. Then they confiscated all of my property.


But this is not only my story. There are many, many Iranians who are under the same conditions.

Is it true that your Nobel medal was seized?

I said that the government took all of my property. One of the things they confiscated was my safe deposit box in the bank, and many of the prizes that I had won, including the Nobel medal, were in there.

The government of Norway became very angry when they found out. And many caricatures were drawn by Iranian artists showing [then-President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad holding my prize and saying, “Oh gosh, I won the prize.”

So they opened the safe deposit box, and they returned the Nobel medal. But the rest — even my wedding band is in there — they never returned it.

Why did you leave Iran?


The day that I left Iran was June 11, 2009. It was one day prior to the elections, and people thought that there was fraud in the elections. So a couple million people took to the streets. A number were arrested. In reality, it was like a coup that day.

I had left Iran for three days, to go to Spain for a speech. I only had a carry-on with me. But on the fourth day, when I was going to go back, Iran was not the country that I had left.

The reason that I don’t go back to Iran is not because I’m scared of going to prison. I’ve been to prison before. Plus the fact is that many of my colleagues and friends are in prison now. At least we could spend time together.

But when I’m outside of prison, I can raise my voice, and it can be heard everywhere. This is why I always travel, and I always give lectures.

Any minute that I feel like I can work in Iran, I’ll go back.