Support Shirin Ebadi and other Human Rights Advocates in Iran and the Middle East

03/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While in December and January the world focused on the clash between Israel and the Palestinians and the carnage in Gaza, gross violations of human rights were also taking place in another region of the Middle East, namely, Iran.

Since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president in June 2005, the state of human rights and civil liberties has been steadily deteriorating in Iran. The hardliners, who also control the judiciary and the legislative branches, have been cracking down hard on social and political freedoms. Most of the independent newspapers have been shut down, and the remaining few are censored heavily. Many journalists have been forced into exile or into "retirement." A significant number of human rights and political activists have been jailed. The activities of independent university students organizations have been greatly curtailed, with some of them which, in fact, represent the most important and most popular, even banned. Nongovernmental organizations that defend the rights of Iran's ethnic minorities have also been hit hard.

A most important - but by no means the only - victim of the hardliners' violation of the basic human rights of Iranian people has been Shirin Ebadi, Iran's best-known human rights advocate and the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate. Ebadi is the founder of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Tehran, in which some of Iran's most prominent lawyers are active, defending the political prisoners, often on a pro-bono base.

A few weeks ago, as the Center's members were gathering to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, and to give an award to Taghi Rahmani, one of Iran's best-known political activist who has spent 14 years in the Islamic Republic's jails, the security forces raided the privately-owned Center's building, shut down the Center, and confiscated many documents. This was while Article 27 of Iran's Constitution allows such peaceful gatherings. Ebadi's harassment continued a few days later when the security agents, this time under the guise of auditing her for tax evasion, raided her law office and confiscated a significant amount of documents that contained important details of Ebadi's defense of her clients - privileged information between the defendants and their attorney. Last week, in an open letter to Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Iran's judiciary chief, 123 of Ebadi's clients, including some of Iran's most important political figures of the last 30 years, strongly protested the illegal confiscation of the privileged documents, and the manner by which they were seized.

But, Ebadi's harassment did not end with the raid. After the war in Gaza began, right-wing students with connection to the hardliners attacked Ebadi's law office, supposedly because she had not condemned Israel's attacks on Gaza, whereas Ebadi has always criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Then, Zhinous Sobhani, secretary of Ebadi's Center for the Defense of Human Rights, was arrested. Over the last several years many death threats have also been made against Ebadi.

In view of the hardliners, Ebadi has committed several unforgiveable "sins." One is her leading role in the formation of a broad coalition called the National Council of Peace in November 2007. The Council has criticized many aspects of the hardliners' foreign policy that have contributed to the dramatic increase in the tension between Iran and the West, and in particular the United States.

Another of Ebadi's "sins" has been helping the formation of a broad-based council for monitoring the electoral process in Iran. The council declared that the parliamentary elections of March 2008 were unfair and undemocratic.

The administration of president Ahmadinejad has proven incompetent in running Iran. Since he took office, Iran has earned at least $250 billion from oil exports, yet unemployment, poverty, inflation, and corruption have risen to alarming levels, causing a huge capital flight to the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf, and in particular the United Arab Emirates, that has helped these nation to prosper. American and the United Nation sanctions have also begun to hurt ordinary people. That has put the hardliners in a very difficult position. Iran's presidential elections will be held on June 12, and there are rampant speculations about the hardliners wanting to rig the elections. Thus, the hardliners are frightened by the Ebadi's electoral council's monitoring of the elections.

Ebadi has also been a strong critic at the international level of the hardliners' violations of human rights in Iran. That has particularly angered the hardliners, since they believe that her work contributed to the recent approval of a resolution at the UN and its Human Rights Council that condemned the terrible state of human rights in Iran.

The hardliners have also been angry that Ebadi accepted to represent seven Iranians of the Bahai faith who have been imprisoned on spying charges. Hardline newspapers and websites have made many baseless accusations against Ebadi. Even her family, and in particular her older daughter, have not escaped the wrath of the hardliners.

Despite her tireless work on behalf of human rights and civil liberties in Iran, Ebadi has also been criticized by some in the Iranian communities in Europe and the US, and in particular in southern California. Iranian Jews are angry that Ebadi has condemned Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, telling her to "mind her own business," forgetting that human rights are universal values. Iranian monarchists -- a group akin to the exiled Cuban community in south Florida -- consider Ebadi a stooge of the Islamic Republic because she has continued her campaign in Iran based on Iran's present laws and Constitution. Others, while doing nothing themselves, criticize Ebadi from the comfort of their homes in the West for not using her prestige to do more to help Iran move toward a more open and democratic society. Much of such unjustified criticisms are being made while Ebadi, her family, her Center, and her colleagues are under constant threats, and work under the most difficult conditions.

The harsh treatment of Shirin Ebadi by Tehran's hardliners is not, of course, the first time that a state has willingly attacked its own Nobel Laureate, or those of other nations. Other examples are Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) versus Burma's military junta; Nelson Mandela (1993) and Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu (1984) versus the apartheid regime of South Africa, and Andrei D. Sakharov (1975) versus the communist regime in the old Soviet Union. They were all awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, yet were vilified by their own regimes and their supporters. Even in the United States, former president Jimmy Carter, a Nobel Peace Laureate, was harshly attacked by the neoconservatives and some Jewish groups after he criticized the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel, and he is the same man who was instrumental in bringing about the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

In addition, we should remember Aleksandra I. Solzhenitsyn, who was awarded (1970) the Nobel Prize in Literature and described vividly the Russian gulags (forced labor camps), for which he was the target of the anger of the Soviet Union; Lev D. Landau, the great Russian physicist who was so terrified by Joseph Stalin that thought that, if he receives the Nobel Prize in physics, which he was eventually awarded in 1962 after Stalin's death, it would save his life and prevent Stalin from murdering him, and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria who was awarded (1986) the Nobel Prize in Literature, but had to flee his country after General Sani Abacha took power in Nigeria through a military coup, and convicted Mr. Soyinka (in absentia) of treason! Even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the great Colombian novelist and the 1982 Nobel Laureate in Literature, was considered for years a "subversive" by the United States, because he had criticized the U.S., and was denied a visa to visit, until Bill Clinton lifted the visa ban.

Ebadi is by no means the only human rights advocate in the Middle East who is being harassed by the government of her own nation. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of the most important human rights advocates and founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Egypt, is constantly harassed by the government of President Hosny Mubarak, a close U.S. ally. Another Egyptian human rights advocate, Gamal Eid, is not only under pressure in Egypt, but was also arrested and deported upon his arrival in Jordan, because he had criticized the Jordanian government, another close ally of the U.S. Matrook al-Faleh, a professor of political science at King Saud University in Riyadh and one of Saudi Arabia's leading advocates of democracy, was imprisoned by its security forces. Anwar al-Bunni of Syria, an internationally-recognized human rights advocate and lawyer, has been in jail for a few years now.

The goal of Tehran's hardliners in harassing Ebadi is to force her to go into a "voluntary" exile. That tactic has already been used against several other prominent Iranian human and civil rights advocates, investigative journalists, university student activists, and political figures. There is already a sizeable number of such Iranian exiles in Western Europe and the U.S. If Ebadi leaves Iran (which she has declared repeatedly that she has no intention of), it would lead to significant weakening of the movement for respect of human rights in Iran. People like Ebadi are difficult to replace, if at all.

Thus, Ebadi and her colleagues throughout the Middle East deserve the support of all those who care about civil liberties and respect for human rights and dignity. However, violations of human rights in any nation should not be used as an excuse to threaten that nation. Instead, strong support should be given to the UN's Human Rights Council and other credible international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights, to vigorously investigate and report violations of human rights in the Middle East, and particularly in Iran, given Iran's importance to peace and stability in the Middle East. One can even envision giving intrusive authority to the UN's Human Rights Council for inspecting prisons in those nations that violate basic civil and human rights of their citizens, in order to find out more about the treatment that the political prisoners receive in such jails.