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Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi Presses Iran on Human Rights and Warns Against International Sanctions

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The Obama administration is working to gather international backing for a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. While the United States has circulated proposals on further sanctions, it has yet to present a draft resolution, and a vote at the Security Council is thought to be months away. This comes amidst a new report by the New York Times that reveals the US government has given more than $107 billion to companies which are also doing business with Iran despite a ban on US companies trading with Iran. Leading Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi argues the UN should focus on pressing the Iranian government to restore democracy and human rights, rather than imposing economic sanctions. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 04, 2009Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi on Threats to Iranian Rights, from Within and Abroad
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: The Obama administration is working to gather international backing for a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. While the US has circulated proposals on further sanctions, it has yet to present a draft resolution, and a vote at the Security Council is thought to be months away.

This comes amidst a new report by the New York Times that reveals the US government has given more than $107 billion to companies which are also doing business with Iran despite a ban on US companies trading with Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Leading Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi argues the UN should focus on pressing the Iranian government to restore democracy and human rights, rather than imposing economic sanctions.

Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. She traveled outside Iran last year on the eve of the presidential election and has not been back since. She was in New York last week, and she came to our studio for a conversation about sanctions, human rights and women’s rights in Iran, and much more.

I began by asking Shirin Ebadi why she had not returned to Iran since last year.

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] As you know, censorship exists in Iran. A number of my colleagues have been apprehended and have been imprisoned. Those that have not been apprehended have advised me to stay out of Iran. They tell me that by staying out of Iran, I can bring my voice to more people. But I’m sure that once the situation gets better in Iran, I am going to go back.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Shirin Ebadi, can you talk about what has happened to you and your family since last June? Your sister was arrested. Your husband’s passport was confiscated. And your Nobel Prize was also confiscated.

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] My husband was arrested for three days, and his passport has been confiscated. My sister was arrested later. She was in prison for three weeks. She developed a heart problem as a result of the stress that she was undergoing. They took her to the hospital in prison and then released her. In reality, both of them were arrested due to my activities because neither my husband nor my sister are political people or do have any kind of political or social activities.

    Regarding my property, yes, all of my bank accounts have been confiscated and frozen by the government. So have my properties in Iran. My Nobel award, Peace Prize, and the medallion that goes with it, plus other prizes that I have won in the past, and the documents, other documents, family documents that we had, were all in a safe box at a bank, which was also confiscated. As a result of the objection of the government of Norway and the Nobel Peace Committee, the safe box was opened. The award and the medallion of — the Nobel award and the medallion were returned to me, but the other awards that I have won and other documents still remain in the safe box, which is under the control of the government.

    AMY GOODMAN: What would happen to you, Shirin Ebadi, if you returned home today, if you returned to Iran?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] All of my activities are in compliance with the laws of Iran. If they want to regard the laws and observe the laws, I haven’t done anything wrong. If they want to disregard the laws, then I don’t know what they’re going to do to me.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you see yourself returning anytime soon? Are you fearful you will be arrested if you return to Iran?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Whenever I feel that I’m more useful in Iran, I will go back. I am not scared of going to prison. I have been in prison before. However, I reiterate here that they have no right to put me in prison. All of my work is compatible with the laws of Iran, and I work on human rights issues.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Shirin Ebadi, you’ve been working in the field of human rights for many, many years now. How would you describe the current phase of repression in Iran? How would you describe what the judiciary has been doing since the disputed elections last June? Tens of hundreds arrested, show trials for hundreds of — over a hundred opposition leaders. Eleven people have been sentenced to death; two were just executed. What’s your assessment of the state of repression in Iran today?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Unfortunately, the situation of human rights has worsened in Iran after the elections. The judiciary has lost its independence. Many of those who have been convicted inform us that the judgments actually come from the Ministry of Intelligence and are only read by the judges.

    Yes, you’re right, people have been receiving execution judgments against them, and four have been executed. Last night, a young student who was a student at the University of Damghan, which is a city in Iran, received an execution punishment, and his accusation, according to the official records of the government, is having thrown stones at the police. He worked in the campaign of Mousavi. And I think that the execution will be carried out against him pretty soon.

    After the elections, the judiciary has been playing tricky. What they have done is that they do release people, but they release them on bails, and the amount of bails are high. They’re not little amounts there we’re talking about. Therefore, although 30,000 people have been released from prison, but they are all on bail, and this bail is sort of like a sword on top of their head to keep them quiet.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the state of the movement today in Iran? That this stage of it, after the elections, the protests, where is it today?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] People do not get on the streets as many as they used to, because of the form of the violence of the government and the repression that the government is putting on them. However, the form of opposition has changed. I can tell you that this is like a flame, a fire, that has been covered with dust, but if the wind blows, it’s going to go up in the air.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your assessment of what the US should do right now? What do you think of sanctions against Iran? What do you think needs to be done?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] In general, I don’t agree with economic sanctions, because the purpose, our purpose, is to make life easier for people, not make it more detrimental to them.

    The sanctions that I agree with are transactions that result in the repression of the people more and more every day. I’ll give you an example. Nokia Siemens had sold a software to the government of Iran through which mobile telephonic conversations, the internet and also SMS used by the people of Iran could be controlled by the government. And a number of my clients who have been imprisoned have informed me that the evidence that was presented against them was obtained through the phone conversation being tapped into.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Shirin Ebadi, you’ve previously supported efforts at dialogue between Iran and the United States, but now you’ve been calling for human rights diplomacy, for the US and other countries in the world to pressure Iran on the basis of its human rights record. How do you think this will work? Do you think the US has a good track record of pushing human rights in other countries, on pressuring, say, China or Israel on human rights? Why do you think this will work with Iran?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] I still believe in dialogue. And I have to say, the betterment of the situation of human rights in Iran is on us. It’s a burden on us Iranians. But do not help the government of Iran to repress its people more. What we want is, when you negotiate with the government of Iran, don’t only focus on nuclear issues, but bring up democracy and human rights issues in the negotiations.

    AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to President Obama about this?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Me, no. I have not met President Obama yet.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think Iran is holding the American hikers? Do you think they are pawns in something larger? Or does Iran actually think that they are spies, the two young men and the woman?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] The government of Iran has announced that they are accused of espionage. But I don’t believe in that, because as soon as they stepped into Iran and on the border, they were apprehended. Even if they did have the intention of espionage, they had no time to carry it out, because they were apprehended right away. And if Iran believes that in another country they have performed espionage, then that country would be competent to try them. Why has Iran apprehended them? The accusation against these young people, if we can say that they have perpetrated a crime, is that they have crossed the border. And pursuant to Iranian laws, there’s only a fine to be paid for it, not imprisonment. The government of Iran should not have arrested these people.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Shirin Ebadi, how do you see the future of the current regime in Iran?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] The people of Iran are all unified, and they want democracy and respect for human rights. And they’re willing to pay any price for it. When a nation comes together, they will be able to become victorious and make the government withdraw. And I know that people will be victorious.

    But when democracy will come to Iran, that’s a different question. It depends on several variable elements. For example, the political status of the neighbors of Iran — Iraq and Afghanistan, the international price of oil, the nuclear issue, relationship of Iran and America, relationship of Iran at the international level with Russia and China. All of these factors can play a role in shortening or lengthening the process of democracy.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that President Obama should have escalated the war in Afghanistan or pulled the US troops out?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] The situation of Afghanistan is such that the central government cannot bring security to the country. Therefore, the best thing to do would be to help the central government and to strengthen it, and at that time we can withdraw foreign soldiers from Afghanistan. There is no reason for your soldiers to be in a different land. We have to help the central government to take over and bring security and fight with the terrorists.

    ANJALI KAMAT: As a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, what did you make of President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year and also announcing the escalation of US troops to Afghanistan the very same week?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Some think that this prize was premature for President Obama, they should have waited for his term of presidency to come to an end and then give it to him. But I think, up to this point, what Mr. Obama has done, if we compare what he has done with others who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, we think that what he has done has been very valuable. And I hope one day he can achieve in bringing healthcare for the people of the United States.

    And let’s not forget, the first day that he went to the White House, he ordered that the Guantánamo prison be closed down. I know that in order to enforce it, he has faced a lot of obstacles. But the fact that a president announced that there was torture in Guantánamo and we will close it down, the fact that he announced that the war of Iraq was wrong and we have to withdraw our soldiers, these are great things, which has created a great record for Mr. Obama.

    AMY GOODMAN: You’ve just met with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. What did you tell him? What do want the United Nations to do?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] The United Nations, during the thirty-one years of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has issued twenty-five resolutions against the government and has accused the government of breach of human rights and has requested that they respect human rights. But unfortunately, we see that the situation of human rights has not become any better in Iran, but it’s becoming worse daily. We — with the United Nations, with Mr. Ban Ki-moon and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, we have to report to them. We have to coordinate with them to see what the United Nations can do to help the people of Iran, to make the government enforce the resolutions. For example, one of our demands being that a special rapporteur be sent to Iran on human rights issues so that the situation of human rights in Iran be monitored.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Shirin Ebadi, you’re here in New York. You also attended a tribunal regarding crimes in Burma. Can you talk about what you heard? What was the testimony you heard from women who testified?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] What the women of Burma testified at the tribunal was horrible. They said how they had been raped sexually by the Burmese soldiers. And when they brought a complaint, they were the ones who were punished, due to defaming the army. They told us that, how they’re being trafficked to China, and there was no court to hear their case. What we heard states that crimes against humanity and also war crimes are being committed in Burma. And the recommendations of the judges — I, myself, being one of them — was that the Security Council of the United Nations refer the Burma case to the International Criminal Court, so that the crimes that have happened in Burma are heard, and punishment and judgment is issued.

    AMY GOODMAN: Shirin Ebadi, we are broadcasting this on International Women’s Day. What message do you have for or about women to the world?

    SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Unfortunately, the women of the world, wherever they are, have not achieved their goal of equal rights. They are still being oppressed and repressed. We should add to our activity to achieve total equal rights. In order to do so, the first thing that we should do is, women should have confidence. They should have self-confidence and know that they can prevail. Also, look for financial independence. A woman who does not have financial independence and is dependent on her husband or father cannot speak about equal rights. Therefore, we have to believe in ourselves, have financial independence, and we will prevail.

    AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace laureate, on this International Women’s Day.

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