"If you can't eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it."
Nobel Laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi begins her book, The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny, with this famous quote from Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati.
It is also how Ms. Ebadi has chosen to live her life, even if it means self-imposed exile.
“In Iran, human rights activists are either in prison or they are incommunicado, meaning no one can talk to them and it's basically impossible for them to have any activity. Unfortunately at the present time, a lot of people ... are afraid to talk. This is why I've remained outside Iran, and work for Iran from where I am,” says Ebadi, who moved to London after Iran's contested 2009 presidential elections. “If something happens in the world, it has to be told so that others will find out about it. It must be known by the world.”
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Ebadi, a prominent critic of the Iranian regime, has lived abroad ever since accusations of fraud in the 2009 prompted unprecedented dissent, and the government cracked down hard.
But despite her animosity towards Iran's government, the Iranian human rights lawyer and activist says that the harsh economic sanctions currently imposed against Iran have been misguided. Intended to pressure Tehran into making concessions on its controversial nuclear program, the sanctions are achieving more harm than good and failing to weaken the Iranian regime, according to the Nobel laureate.
“I do not agree with sanctions that hurt people,” says Ebadi in a phone interview a day after April 14 talks between Tehran and the international powers known as P5+1 about Iran's nuclear program.
Though talks ended on a positive note, with negotiations slated to continue in Baghdad on May 23, Ms. Ebadi claims it's too quick to predict if and how Iran's nuclear negotiators will ultimately follow through.
“We have to see what the results are. Up to today, they've always used negotiations to buy time. In this regard, we have to wait for the second round of negotiations.”
No. 2 country for capital punishment; crackdown on dissent
But while the bulk of international attention on Iran is focused on its nuclear program, human rights violations in the Islamic Republic often go relatively unnoticed.
In 2011, Iran executed more than 360 people, making it the No. 2 country for capital punishment after China, with nearly nine times more executions than the US, according to the Guardian.
Since Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election, the Iranian government has engaged in a broad crackdown on journalists, political opposition figures, activists, and students. As of late 2011, 49 journalists and bloggers remained in prison, and lawyers seeking to represent rights activists have faced mounting pressure from security authorities, with a number of prominent lawyers currently facing stiff prison sentences or long-term bans from practicing law, according to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report.
Three of those lawyers – currently imprisoned on charges of acting against national security – cofounded the now-banned Defenders of Human Rights Center with Ebadi.
Ebadi is seeking to leverage her international credibility to increase American awareness of human rights violations in Iran during a tour of US cities she launched last week in Minneapolis.
Ebadi became Iran's first female judge in 1969, during the tenure of former monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After's Iran's 1979 revolution, the institution of the Islamic Republic brought with it the demotion of all female judges, including Ebadi. Rather than work in a lower position in a court she once presided over, she chose to retire early from the Iranian judiciary and did not practice law again until 1992, when she received a permit to open her own legal practice.
In 2003, she became both the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to win a Nobel Peace Prize for her legal work in advancing the rights of women, children, and refugees in Iran.
Women have limited rights in personal matters such as marriage and inheritance. A woman needs the permission of a male guardian to marry, and once married needs her husband's written permission to travel outside the country. She also has limited child custody rights.
Call for constitutional change
Today, the Iranian lawyer and activist says that for Iran to become truly democratic, both the Iranian Constitution and the country's judiciary system, which is heavily controlled by the clergy, must change.
Speaking by phone Sunday from Minneapolis, where she kick-started an eight-city lecture tour, Ms. Ebadi said the Islamic Republic's unique system of clerical rule, in which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei acts as “Guardian Jurist” with final say in all matters of state, must also be amended.
In a democratic, secular Iran, a Supreme Leader, would have no role in governance, says Ebadi. “The Constitution and the legal structure of the judicial system must be changed. When I speak about a secular democracy, naturally I am speaking of the separation of church and state and religion from government,” she says.
But she is quick to add that the decision to amend Iran's laws must be made by the people themselves in a free and fair vote, and expressed hope that Iran's transition towards democracy and free political participation can be achieved peacefully.
How Ebadi differs from Green Movement leaders
Ebadi's call for change in Iran's Constitution differs from the views of prominent affiliates of Iran's so-called Green Movement, such as former president Mohammad Khatami and opposition figures Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have all called for the Islamic Republic to “return” to Iran's post-Revolutionary Constitution, which they claim the current regime has violated.
But differences of opinion such as these is exactly the point of a democracy, says the Nobel laureate. “That is the way it is. People have different views,” she says.
“The Green movement isn't an ideological movement. It's a civil movement. And all of those who are unhappy with the present government can be part of it, even if they have different political views. They just want to improve the situation,” she says.
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