“Democracy is Not Going to Be Given Through Cluster Bombs”–An Hour with 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi

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This past weekend, Iran’s judiciary barred human rights lawyer and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi from representing the family of Iranian-born Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.

Kazemi was arrested in June 2003 for taking photographs outside Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. She died in hospital on July 10, 2003 from a brain hemorrhage caused by a blow to the head. Iranian authorities said Ebadi’s name did not figure in the list of approved lawyers on a summons for the next hearing in the case.

Today we spend the hour with Judge Shirin Ebadi talking about human rights, Iran, Iraq and Islam. A graduate of Tehran University, Ebadi was one of Iran’s first female judges in 1975. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, she was forced to resign when she was told she could no longer serve on the bench because she was a woman.

She went on to establish a law practice representing political dissidents, Iranian women and the families of artists and intellectuals killed by the government. In 2000, she was thrown in prison for representing relatives of students killed by pro-regime vigilantes. In addition to her work as a lawyer, she has also written 11 books on human rights and on family law setting out the rights of children.

In October 2003, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Muslim woman and first Iranian ever to receive the award. Two months later, she refused to vote in the Iranian parliamentary elections in which the more than 2,000 reformist candidates were disqualified. Shirin Ebadi lives in Tehran and is married with two daughters.

She recently embarked on a speaking tour around the country. Last week she joined us in our firehouse studio for an extended interview. Her answers are translated to English from her native Farsi. I began by asking her about the situation in Iraq.

  • Shirin Ebadi, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her answers are translated to English from Frasi by Bennington College professor Mansour Farhang, he is the former Iran ambassador to the United Nations.

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

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the situation in Iraq right now?

SHIRIN EBADI: Unfortunately the situation is not pleasant. I was opposed to military invasion of Iraq. And the issue was that it was under the disguise of weapons of mass destruction that the military invasion of Iraq was justified and then they found no such things in Iraq. And then under the disguise of promoting democracy American military forces remained in Iraq. While democracy means the people have to decide on their own. What American military establishment should do in Iraq today is to use the offices of the United Nations and return national sovereignty to the people of Iraq. We have to remember that democracy is not a commodity to be offered to another country. Democracy is not going to be given to people through cluster bombs.

AMY GOODMAN: What does the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq mean for the people of Iran?

SHIRIN EBADI: Military invasion and the use of military force could hinder the progress of democracy. In Iran, there is the idea that the United States might be thinking of taking military action against Iran. Whether there is any truth to this speculation, the government uses it as an excuse and then represses the dissident elements in the name of national security.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Judge Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize winner, as she speaks around the world now opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Iraq traditionally, under Saddam Hussein, an enemy of the Iranian government, the two countries, your two countries, fought a war for many years that took many, many lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Many might be surprised that you criticize the U.S. invasion.

SHIRIN EBADI: The fact that Saddam was a dictator whose demise didn’t make anybody feel sad is known. But as an Iranian it was my wish that Saddam would be overthrown by the people of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: The situation of Saddam Hussein remaining in power for so many decades and Iraq’s relationship with Iran. Can you talk about where it comes from?

SHIRIN EBADI: Saddam attacked Iran in 1980. He was under the impression that because Iran was going through revolutionary process and it was unstable that he could easily invade and occupy the country. But contrary to his expectation, Iranians, particularly the young people, united and resisted his invasion. We have to remember that Saddam used chemical bombs against Iranians a number of times. At the time we had the information that Saddam was getting his nuclear material from the United States and other Western countries, and we informed many countries and the international community about this problem, but no one paid attention to our complaints. And later on it was proven that our claims were quite correct. It’s regrettable that the same people who gave Saddam chemical material to make his bombs used his possession of chemical, y’know, weapons as a disguise to attack him

AMY GOODMAN: The country, the United States, is learning a lot, or not, about the Reagan years right now with the death of former President Ronald Reagan. I wanted to ask you about Donald Rumsfeld. He was the envoy for President Reagan in 1983 and 1984. He went to Iraq, shook hands with Saddam Hussein. At the same time in his two trips, the U.N. and the U.S. State Department came out with a report saying Saddam had used chemical weapons, but Donald Rumsfeld was there to normalize relations with Saddam Hussein. Can you comment on this?

SHIRIN EBADI: This was truly the case that Saddam Hussein was not able to accumulate the kind of weapons system and arsenals, as well as chemical weapons, without assistance of the United States and other Western countries. What is important is that we have to remind people of recent past history. Not because we are seeking revenge, but because we have to learn from the past so same mistakes will not be committed.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to talk with you about your past as a woman, as an Iranian, as a Muslim. Um, most people in this country know very little about Iran. They know that the country is part of what Bush calls the Axis of Evil. Perhaps that’s all they know. Can you talk about how, um, as a woman, you grew up, where you come from, how you came to be a judge, what it was like to go from the Shah to the Ayatollahs?

SHIRIN EBADI: I grew up in a middle class family but my parents were interested in education. My father was professor of commercial laws. Because of my commitment and interest in the question of justice, I decided to go to law school. And after graduating from law school, I became a judge. I was number one in the entrance examination of the Ministry of Justice and because of my record and accomplishments I made very rapid progress in the Ministry of Justice. At the time of the Revolution I was actually the Chief Judge. And after the Revolution they claimed that women cannot be judge according to Islamic laws.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you support the Revolution?

SHIRIN EBADI: Yes, I supported the Revolution because the goals of the Revolution were freedom and independence for our country. And we believed that the establishment of the Islamic Republic would advance the cause of independence and freedom in Iran. And when realized that the goals of the Revolution were ignored by the regime, I, along with many other Iranians, continued our struggle for freedom and independence.

AMY GOODMAN: Many people at the time of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran had no idea the issues raised by the Iranian students going back to Mossadegh. Can you explain the U.S. relationship with Iran from your perspective as an Iranian?

SHIRIN EBADI: Mossadegh was a very popular Prime Minister in Iran. He was the one who nationalized the Iranian oil industry. The Shah at the time opposed Mossadegh and their differences led to a confrontation, and the Shah received assistance from the United States to engineer a military coup to overthrow Mossadegh. And the Iranian people who, who appreciated the freedom during the period never forgive the Shah or the United States for the coup and the overthrow of the Mossadegh.

AMY GOODMAN: And so the takeover, which also goes to President Carter and President Reagan, um, the takeover of the Iranian Embassy. It determined U.S. politics. Many say it took out President Carter.

SHIRIN EBADI: I must say at this point that I was categorically against hostage taking. We criticize the United States for having committed an act against the Iranian interest, but that has nothing to do with hostage taking and it cannot be used as a justification for hostage taking.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you understand what happened at that time? The question of whether there was a secret arms deal that Reagan ran against Carter, that Reagan’s people, the allegation was they made a deal with the Iranians. If they did not release the hostages until after the election, they would give them weapons. On the day of President Reagan’s inauguration in 1981 on that morning, the hostages were released.

SHIRIN EBADI: I’m not, I’m not aware of what happens behind closed doors. And I’m not particularly interested in discussing issues about, about which I’m not adequately informed. From my perspective, hostage taking was a big mistake. And the, the hostages should have been released immediately after the incident.

AMY GOODMAN: And so the U.S. supported, gave arms to Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Iran as they fought each other.

SHIRIN EBADI: When the war begins, both sides lose and the winners are those who export and sell arms to both sides. And American arms exporters are number one in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: When were you first imprisoned? We’re speaking with Judge Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize winner, 2004.

SHIRIN EBADI: I was in prison only once and it was four years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you in jail?

SHIRIN EBADI: I was a defense attorney in a particular political case and I introduced the witness to the court, and as a result of this both the witness and myself ended up in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: For how long and how were you treated?

SHIRIN EBADI: I was in jail for 25 days and during the entire period I was in solitary confinement. My cell was so small that if I were to be taller I would not have been able to sleep in it. There was (unintelligible) and it was on for 24 hours a day, it had no windows out at all and I was not aware whether it was daytime or nighttime. And I had no access to radio, television and newspapers and I could not receive visitors either. And complete silence. I was not tortured. The food was adequate. And if I needed medical care there was medical assistance ready for me. But being in total isolation and not access to counsel was extremely difficult to tolerate. Fortunately my imprisonment did not last, did not last that long. There were other political prisoners who were spent six, seven, eight month in solitary confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your representation of the family of Zahra Kazemi, what happened to her first, and what you’re doing?

SHIRIN EBADI: Zahra Kazemi was an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who was arrested in Tehran. They took her to Evin prison, a famous prison in Tehran, and they beat her, and because of the head, they administered on her head, that caused her death. Zahra’s mother came to me and asked me to be her lawyer and pursue the matter. I accepted the case and we had some preliminary discussion with the judicial authorities, but they postponed the, the court hearing. And they have set July 18 as the date for the trial of the people who have been accused of committing the crime. What is important to me in such cases is to expose the truth. Regrettably, Zahra Kazemi is not coming back to us. But we still must know, learn what happens in Iranian prisons, what kinds of circumstances exist, that the authorities, or the guards, could beat a prisoner so badly that cause her death.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe the people who are responsible for Zahra’s death are being charged?

SHIRIN EBADI: I’m not particularly interested in the individuals who have been accused. I’m interested in exposing the system, the prison system in Iran. What is important to us is to change the administration of the prison system. So that the, the tragedy of Zahra Kazemi will not be repeated in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Judge Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Can you explain the current politics in Iran?

SHIRIN EBADI: After the seventh Parliamentary election in Iran, the progress of democracy in Iran suffered a setback because the Council of Guardians which vets the candidates, excluded a large number of qualified candidates from running. Even 85 members of the existing Parliaments, the incumbents, they were disqualified due to the positions they had taken and the views they had expressed in the Parliament. And at the end they offered people a list of candidates and they asked people that you are free to vote for these people. And people were very unhappy with the, with those who were on the list. I did not participate in the election myself. Because the candidates on the, on the list were not qualified and I could not trust them, did not, I did not know them.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of your president?

SHIRIN EBADI: In comparison with other men who served as presidents in Iran, he is better than the rest. He is somewhat open-minded. But I am also critical of him. Mister Khatami should have insisted in a more forceful way in carrying on his reform measures.

AMY GOODMAN: What is his relationship to the Ayatollahs, to Ayatollah Khomeini?

SHIRIN EBADI: This is a question that he should answer. But the Constitution of the Islamic Republic gives more power to the Supreme Leader than to the President. And the person to the Supreme Leader is the President. But after he became President it, it became evident that not only he was not the second person, maybe he was the hundredth on the list.

AMY GOODMAN: The government of Iran did not want to acknowledge your being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

SHIRIN EBADI: This is the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe the scene when you came back to Iran.

SHIRIN EBADI: When I got on the plane in the Iran Airlines, Iran Air, in, in Paris, I was welcomed and very well received by the crew, by the Iranian crew on the airline.

SHIRIN EBADI: And the pilot announced to the passengers that in honoring Miss Ebadi, we are going to refer to this flight as the Flight of Peace. And when we arrived in Tehran, they changed the landing area of the plane and the reason they had changed the landing area was that so many people had come to the airport to welcome her, that whether it was a security measure or other concerns, the government had decided to land elsewhere so that they could control the people for effectively. And when I got off the plane and entered the custom area, suddenly I realized that vast number of Iranians had come to the airport to welcome me. The crowd was so large that it was not simply possible for me to go through the crowd. As a result I went on a platform and with a handheld, mic or speaker, announced to the people that with this massive crowd it was not possible for me to go and shake hands with the crowd and mix with them. I thanked them and appreciated them where, while I was on the platform. And I invited people to visit my house the next day if they so wished. And the next day a lot people came to my house. And the vast majority of them I did not know. And many people were crying and congratulating me for my accomplishment. And I got the clear impression that the Nobel Prize I won actually gave the Iranian a national pride. People used to tell me that the name of Iran has been associated with bad news in the past. This is the first time that the name of Iran was being associated with an accomplishment that people took so much pride in. The most beautiful scene I witnessed on, in the airport is the one I wish to describe to you. I have a non-governmental organization to support children in Iran. And part of our work is for homeless children in Tehran. And we take care of 600 kids in this program. And some of these kids sing and play music on the street and collect some money from the pedestrians. And some of these people have come to the airport to sing and play their music and they managed to get a great deal of attention from the welcoming crowd. And when I saw this scene I couldn’t stop crying.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the position of children and women in Iraq, in Iran right now?

SHIRIN EBADI: I should tell you that 63 percent of university students in Iran are women. Iran has an ancient civilization. But the laws of Iran do not fit the situation of the Iranian women, particularly educated women. In Iran polygamy is a still legal. Two women testifying in a courtroom are equivalent of a man. The value of one woman’s life is half of that of a man. If a driver hits a man and a woman in a car accident, the compensation for the man is twice as much as it is for women. Iranian women are very dissatisfied with these laws. As a result, Iranian feminist movement is deep and spreading rapidly. And I’m certain Iranian women will win this struggle. And the situation of children is also very unpleasant in Iran. In our culture, in our system, physical punishment of children seems to be accepted as a way of raising or training children. The age limit for, for getting married is very low, 13 for women, 15 for men. And the age of legal culpability is also very low, nine for women, 15 for men. Which means if a ten year-old girl breaks the law, she will be treated in the same fashion as I would be.

AMY GOODMAN: What gives you hope? Where do you see change happening?

SHIRIN EBADI: What gives me hope is the public desire for reform and change. People are very much interested in changing these laws. And finally they will win.

AMY GOODMAN: What effect does it have that President Bush calls Iran a part of the Axis of Evil?

SHIRIN EBADI: Bush speaks without reflection or understanding and I don’t want to add much to this comment. Iran is not part of the Axis of Evil. Of course Iranian foreign policy on a number of occasions has been weak and not serving Iranian national interest. But this doesn’t mean that Iran should be included in the Axis of Evil. AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans now? Your stage has gone international as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. What will you do with this prize?

SHIRIN EBADI: I will continue my previous activities with greater speed and efficiency. And wherever I am present at the international level, I wish to express the view Islam is not a religion of terrorism and aggression. If an innocent person kills and justified in the name of Islam we should know that they are abusing the name of Islam. If they commit terrorism in the name of Islam it is another exploitation and abuse of Islam. When a particular group commits a crime or makes a mistake we should not attribute it to Islam. And we should not repeatedly refer to Islamic terrorism. In, in Bosnia many Christians committed crimes. We did not refer to them as Christian terrorists and we did not attribute their action or behavior to Christianity. And the indifference of the government of Israel toward various resolutions of the United Nations and the behavior, is, behavior of Israel in the Middle Eastern scene should not be attributed to Judaism. And why it is that the deviation of an individual or a group should be attributed to Islam? I am categorically against the idea of clash of civilizations. And this perspective, this theory, came about after the Cold War ended. And it’s a justification for war. And when they refer to the clash of civilizations between Eastern and Western part of the world, what they really have in mind is Islam, and the clash of Islam with the West. And we know that the oil wells are largely in the Islamic country. And behind the theory of clash of civilizations lies some other interests and factors related to oil resources and oil interest. For the same reason that invading Iraq had nothing to do with helping the Iraqi people and it was only Saddam that was ruling his country in a dictatorial fashion that the United States uses Iraq’s dictatorship as a pretext to attack the country militarily. And in this theory of clash of civilizations, after the clash with Islam, they also refer to Buddhist civilization. The implication is that once this war with Islam is over, then we have to move to another front.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Ayatollah Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr. How do you see these men and how do you see the Iraqi resistance?

SHIRIN EBADI: Ayatollah Sistani is a high ranking religious figure who is widely respected by the Iraqi Shia. And his views seem to be peaceful and moderate. The presence of foreign troops in a country like Iraq helps elements and tendencies presented by Muqtada al-Sadr. Islamic fundamentalists like Muqtada al-Sadr justify their behavior and their position on the basis of their country being occupied by foreign troops. If we want to eliminate, weaken the Muqtada al-Sadrs of Iraq, we should return the national sovereignty to the Iraqi people.

AMY GOODMAN: Any last comment you would like to make? This program is heard throughout the United States but then on Internet around the world.

SHIRIN EBADI: And my final words in this interview is that religions and civilizations are not in conflict with each other. They have many elements in common. We should focus on what we have in common and not on the differences. We should not justify war. In the conflict and war, people are not going to benefit and gain satisfaction of any kind.

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