What can a government do to harass women fighting for their rights when they are not breaking the law? In Iran, according to Shirin Ebadi, Nobel prize winner, lawyer and human rights defender, one answer is to use the power of the courts against them. The Iranian delegation to the second meeting of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which opened today in Guatemala, was meant to have five members. Two of them were prevented from leaving the country. Narges Mohammadi, spokesperson for the Centre for the Defence of Human Rights and an award-winning human rights defender in her thirties, and Soraya Arzizpanati, a Kurdish Iranian journalist active in the campaign to clear land mines in Iran, had passed through passport control at Tehran airport, their exit visas safely stamped in their passports, when they were called back by the police. Their passports were confiscated and they were notified that both were subject to court cases. They will now face charges in the revolutionary courts.
It is, Shirin Ebadi says, a well-tried method of harassment of civil and social rights activists in Iran. Approximately 50 women have been brought before the courts in similar circumstances. Twenty have been fully prosecuted on three common charges: endangering national security, defamation of the government and disturbing public conscience. Among them are two of the members of the Iranian delegation to the first Nobel Women’s Initiative two years ago in Galway, Parween Agalon, winner of the Olaf Palme prize, who has been sentenced to three years in prison, a sentence she is now appealing, and Nazrin Satoodeh, a lawyer and close colleague of Shirin Ebadi, winner of an Italian human rights award.
With prosecutions that are clearly politically motivated, is it possible to win with legal argument? Shirin Ebadi has defended most of these cases and says that the challenge is to make the government obey its own laws: the Iranian constitution guarantees free speech and once taunted a government prosecutor with the proposition that a women publicly opposing polygamy was not likely to bring on an Israeli attack on Iran: she is merely stating her own opinion, as the constitution entitles her to.
For Ebadi, the answer is not to overthrow the government but to demand that it respect its own constitutional provisions. That, she says, would be progress. Despite the continuing harassment, she insists that things are better than they were: 24 years ago , she recalled, people were executed without trial. “At least now we have trials,” she said, “but what matters is that people want more.”
As evidence of that rising demand, she recalled that at the beginning of the revolution, the term feminist was used as an insult but that: “Now it has a social value. The defence of women’s rights is popular and the number of people who believe in equality is growing every day.”
The harassment, however, continues. Last year Shirin Ebadi’s legal practice was raided twice and everything - computers, documents and accounts - seized on the pretext that she had not paid her taxes. The material was eventually returned and no tax charges were pursued. But last December 28th the offices of the Centre for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran, which defends political prisoners pro bono, produces quarterly human rights reports and supports political prisoners’ families, was raided and closed. The closure is seen as revenge for three recent initiatives: a national council on peace that considered the impact of a future war on Iran and counselled against the continuing enrichment of plutonium, a committee on healthy, free and just elections and an electoral supervisory committee composed of thirteen opposition groups and a campaign to oppose under-age executions - a field in which Iran leads the world. It is, she said, attracting support, even amongst the clergy. The centre remains closed, with all its documentation - and several borrowed chairs that the centre has not been able to return - locked up inside. The closure, she says, was illegal. The work, though, has not stopped.
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