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2009-04-30

Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi Joins Defense Team of Jailed Iranian American Journalist Roxana Saberi

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We speak to Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi about the jailed Iranian American reporter Roxana Saberi, whom she represents. Ebadi also shares her thoughts on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s upcoming elections, US-Iran relations, and more. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

Iran’s attorney general suggested Wednesday the jailed Iranian American reporter Roxana Saberi should directly appeal to the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, for amnesty.

Saberi was sentenced last week to eight years in prison after being convicted for spying for the United States. Roxana’s father says she’s on a hunger strike protesting her conviction, but the Iranian judiciary denies Saberi is refusing to eat.

Roxana Saberi has reported from Iran for National Public Radio and for the BBC for the past six years. She was arrested in January.

The Nobel Peace Laureate and Iranian human rights lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, is on Saberi’s legal team. I caught up with Ebadi yesterday in Austin, Texas, where she’s giving a series of lectures at UT, the University of Texas. I asked Shirin Ebadi for the latest on Roxana Saberi.

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] After Roxana Saberi was arrested and convicted in an unfair trial that sentenced her to eight years in prison, her father came to me and asked me to represent her. So I, myself, along with two other colleagues, Mr. Soltani and Ms. Parakand, have taken up her case. Mr. Soltani went six times to try to meet with her, but he was denied a meeting with her. We’ve also been denied a chance to look at the trial case and the files that are involved, because we are independent lawyers, and they will not allow us to access the information we want.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Can you tell us what you understand about this case? Why was she convicted?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] I can say that the trial was unfair, and it actually violated Iran’s very laws. According to our constitution, political charges must be given in the presence of a jury in an open court session. But in Roxana Saberi’s case, the trial happened behind closed doors in the absence of a jury, and her father was denied entry into the courtroom.

    Also, when a person is arrested, they must have access to a lawyer almost immediately, very soon after arrest. But according to the decision and order of the prosecutor, she was denied a lawyer, and we have not been able to have access to her, either.

    She has already been convicted to eight years. We have stepped in to represent her and take up the charge, the case. But unfortunately, the prosecutor is preventing us or her family from reading about the case. Whatever action the court has done in this regard is actually illegal.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    How typical is this? Of course, she’s an American journalist, an Iranian American, and so we hear a great deal about it. Does this happen to journalists on a regular basis in Iran?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] It is not typical to arrest the Iranian Americans, but in the past several years, a few of them have been arrested, including Miss Haleh Esfandiari, Mr. Kian Tajbakhsh, and let us not forget Miss Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian Canadian photojournalist who was arrested and died in prison.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Who you represented.

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Yes, I represented the family of Miss Zahra Kazemi and represented Miss Haleh Esfandiari.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    And with the journalist, the photojournalist who was beaten to death in jail, what has come of her case brought by her family?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Yes. Five years have passed since that happened. And in this five years, basically what has occurred is that the court has primarily said that — has issued one verdict over the case after reviewing it and had said that, well, it is true that she died in prison. And I must say that we filed a lawsuit against the head of the prison, as well as those who arrested her at the time. But then the court went on to say that, even so, they cannot point the finger at anyone and say exactly who was responsible for her death. We believe that if our investigations were taken note of at the court and the evidence that we presented was accounted for, they could have found the killers.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian president said on Sunday that the American journalist who has been convicted of spying, Roxana Saberi, should be allowed to offer a full defense during her appeal. What do you make of his comments? How much control does he have over this process?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] His statement repeats an existing law in Iran, but it is regrettable that her lawyers, we, including my colleague, Mr. Soltani, who tried to go and meet her six times, have been denied access to her or to her files.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Could Ahmadinejad weigh in here?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Mr. Ahmadinejad is the president, and according to the constitution, the judiciary must be independent.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    I wanted to get your reaction to the United States and other countries refusing to participate in the Durban conference against racism.

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] In general, I disagree with boycotting any meeting or international event. Any country, any representative should be free to attend and speak his or her mind. Why not?

    AMY GOODMAN:

    The comments of President Ahmadinejad at the meeting that many people, many representatives who were there, walked out of?

      PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] After World War II, under the pretext of Jewish suffering and by taking advantage of the Holocaust, they used aggression and military force to turn an entire nation into refugees. And they transplanted people from Europe, the United States and other parts of the world into their land, establishing a thoroughly racist government in occupied Palestine.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    What is your response to his response and the walkout?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Mr. Ahmadinejad should have talked about how to go about establishing an independent government for Palestine and how to find ways of ending the war in the Middle East. I disagree with what he said, and I do not endorse his opinions of this matter. At the same time, I think that instead of leaving the conference room, people should have stayed and just expressed their opinion freely and openly.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    So what is happening here? What do you think of the political effect of the isolation of Iran, Shirin Ebadi?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Do you isolate a country by leaving a conference room?

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Overall, the targeting of Iran, saying it’s developing nuclear weapons, the United States, Israel, raising the specter of possibly attacking Iran for this?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] I respect public international law, and I personally believe that when the UN Security Council passes three resolutions condemning Iran and also demanding it to halt uranium enrichment, then the Iranian government must voluntarily do so. In my opinion, that’s how the Iranian government can increase the trust of the international community and prevent further sanctions.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    President Obama, what difference — has he made a difference, do you feel? And do the people of Iran feel differently about him than President Bush?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Well, the political culture has changed under Mr. Obama, but I hope that in practice, too, we will witness the change.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    He has called for dialogue, raised the level of the communication between high-level officials in Iran and the United States.

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] I believe the dialogue must begin, and it must also simultaneously be conducted at three levels: between the heads of state, between the Parliament and Congress, as well as between civil society groups in both countries. All areas of difference must be addressed, including foreign policy and issues related to human rights.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Can you describe civil society inside Iran? You won the Nobel Peace Prize for representing women and girls in Iran. When Iran is isolated, does it make it worse for pro-democracy groups inside or better?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Well, undoubtedly, isolating a country means forgetting about it, and that does not help democracy in a country. I believe in dialogue, and I think that we must begin dialogue as soon as possible.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Judge Ebadi, Attorney Shirin Ebadi, you have great faith in the law.

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] I must have faith in the law, because without the law there will be anarchy. However, our problem is that some government officials and some courts do not respect the law fully.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    What you think are the most pressing issues of the day in Iran, Shirin Ebadi?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] The most pressing issue facing Iran is the increasing levels of unemployment among the youth and also increased poverty in society, as well as a greater occurrence of cases of violation of human rights.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Elections coming up in June. I understand a woman has entered the presidential elections. What is your assessment? Do they offer hope? And who is she?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Before thinking of the gender of the candidates, I think about how they think, their thought process, what their agenda is and how much they care to implement their plans. And then, on the other hand, elections are not entirely free in Iran. Every candidate must be pre-qualified by a body called the Guardian Council before they can be — they are able to run for office and receive votes.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Have you weighed running for president? Other Nobel Peace Prize winners head their countries, like Jose Ramos-Horta in East Timor. In Burma, you have Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader, though she’s been under house arrest for so many years. How about Shirin Ebadi, President Shirin Ebadi?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] I have said many times that I do not wish to run for political power or hold political power. I am a human rights advocate, and I must remain among my people and be a speaker for the silent people of my society.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    I interviewed President Ahmadinejad when he came to New York. If you were journalist questioning the Iranian president, what would you ask him?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Well, many different questions could be asked. For example, there was a budget discrepancy recently. The Parliament wanted a separate accounting to be done of the budget. So I would have asked him if this is true and what the story is.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    How does the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan affect you in Iran? Do you support President Obama’s expansion of war in Afghanistan?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] Well, undoubtedly, the situation in our neighborhood affects Iran. But I have to say that fighting terrorism is not defined exclusively by fighting terrorists and trying to root them out. We must instead find the roots of terrorism and address them. There are two root causes for terrorism. One is prejudice, and one is injustice. And prejudice results from ignorance. So rather than sending arms to Afghanistan, we should send teachers.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    You’ve come to the United States to speak around the country. What is your message to the American people?

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    [translated] I bring the message of friendship at all times from people of Iran to the people in America. You see, there are about two million Iranians who live in the United States. Now, imagine if each of them had at least five relatives and friends back home in Iran, the large number of Iranians who are genuinely interested in the United States and in the improvement of relations between the people of these two countries.

    AMY GOODMAN:

    Thank you very much.

    SHIRIN EBADI:

    You’re welcome.

AMY GOODMAN:

Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate, Shirin Ebadi.

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