Shirin Ebadi was one of Iran’s first female judges before the Islamic revolution. She eventually became a human-rights lawyer, and in 2000 spent time in prison for speaking out against her country’s hierocracy. In 2003, Dr. Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being a defender of the rights of women and children despite threats to her safety.
Since 2009, she has been living in exile in London. Dr. Ebadi was recently in Toronto to deliver a talk in partnership with the University of Toronto’s Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Institute of Iranian Studies.
The Globe and Mail interviewed Dr. Ebadi on her life and her continued resistance against the Iranian regime.
In 1969, you became one of the first women in the history of Iran to have served as a judge. Did you face discrimination pre-revolution?
Dr. Shirin Ebadi: I was the only woman, and I was also the youngest person to become a presiding judge at that time. There were no issues that came with being a woman judge. The people who appeared in my court took it well.
What was your political position when the revolution occurred?
SE: Like most Iranians, I took to the streets and chanted “Viva Khomeini!”
Before coming to Iran, Khomeini used words that were agreeable. He said that women and men are equal. He even said that communists could be active in his vision of Iran.
On Feb. 12, 1979, the revolution was victorious. On March 8, Khomeini went on the radio to state that all women who worked in government organizations had to be covered and wear a hijab. He had lied to us. Discriminatory laws against women began to be passed.
I participated in the first anti-hijab demonstrations. That was the day I stopped supporting Khomeini.
When the Islamic Republic took over, women weren’t allowed to be judges and you were dismissed from your post. You were relegated to being a clerk in the court you presided over. This must have been deeply disheartening.
SE: Naturally, it was very sad for me. What really bothered me was the young women who had gone to law school or who were starting law school. Their dreams were stolen.
You protested – as did all the other female judges – and the regime relented a little. They gave you the position of “expert” in the Justice Department. Was this a real position?
SE: As “experts” we could only counsel or prepare cases for the judge. We could not be the decision makers.
After your forced retirement from the Justice Department, the bar association closed down and was managed by the judiciary. You were housebound for many years.
SE: The bar association was closed down for 18 years. When it reopened, it wasn’t independent. It had to undergo competency tests. Most of the independent attorneys who defended political prisoners did not pass.
We decided to nominate ourselves. We did this year after year to prove that theirs was not a correct system.
In 1992, you succeeded in obtaining a lawyer’s licence and set up your own practice. You focused on the defence of victims and survivors of human-rights violations.
SE: We weren’t supported; many defence lawyers were taken to prison.
I was one of the attorneys apprehended. [In 2000] there was a police raid on the dormitory of a university and one student was killed. I represented the family of that student and brought a case against the police. I was detained for doing this.
How long were you in Evin Prison?
SE: I was there for 25 days. I was released on bond and then I was tried and sentenced to three years. I appealed.
While the case was being appealed, I won the Nobel Prize. The international attention made them more careful. They determined my sentence could be converted to a fine. I paid it and my case was closed.
You were undeterred and went on to defend high-profile cases. In 2003, you represented the mother of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died in police custody.
SE: Zahra Kazemi was taking pictures of the families of political prisoners who had gathered at Evin. They were demonstrating against the punishments.
Police told Zahra she wasn’t permitted to take photos. She showed them her permit but they insisted it wasn’t acceptable. They began pushing her into a sedan. She resisted and was pushed with a force that made her hit her head on the metal.
For five days no one knew where she was. She was taken to hospital. She was in a coma and she died.
The coroner determined that Zahra died of a head injury. The report stated that two parts of her skull were broken. Our question was: Was this from one incident or from numerous shocks that resulted in two different areas being broken?
What we were trying to determine was whether she was tortured in prison. If she didn’t die from hitting her head on the car, then she had probably been tortured and hit in the head again.
There are cameras all over Evin – even in the bathrooms. We asked the court to provide us with the videos of the five days that she was in solitary. We also asked for her clothes; we wanted to see if there was blood and what condition they were in.
None of our requests were responded to and in the end the murderer was never identified. The only thing the government would do was pay compensation. Zahra’s mother refused. She wanted to continue the complaint.
Is the case closed?
SE: The case is open, but we have not been called back to court. No one has been arrested. Whenever we have asked about it, they said they would let us know, but nothing has happened. Unfortunately, Zahra’s mother has passed away.
Please tell me about going into exile and the circumstances surrounding that.
SE: In 2009, there were demonstrations over election fraud. As a result, many of the civil societies were closed down. The NGO that I – along with other attorneys – had founded to represent political prisoners was among these.
Many of my colleagues were apprehended. The authorities raided my house and law office. My property was confiscated. My bank accounts were closed down.
I was in Spain participating in a conference at the time. I went to the United Nations and reported the situation. Because I wasn’t in Iran, the authorities apprehended my husband and my sister.
A month later they told me that if I stopped speaking, I could get all my money back, and everything else that was confiscated back. My husband and sister would also be released from prison.
They were eventually released. I said I didn’t want my money and that I wouldn’t be silenced.
Thirty people were taken to prison for having worked with my NGO. [Activist] Narges Mohammadi is still in prison. [Lawyer] Mohammad Seifzadeh has served a six-year sentence but was recently sentenced to another year.
I never went back to Iran.