A fearless critic rattles the mullahs
Lawyers must be left alone, says a defender of democracy.
By Russell Skelton.
In the basement of a drab grey building, a slight, unassuming woman greets her clients with a firm
handshake and a brief, polite smile. Shirin Ebadi, judge, lawyer, human rights advocate and Nobel
Peace Prize winner, may appear diminutive but she has shaken and angered the theocratic regime with
her aggressive advocacy and her refusal to accept the legitimacy of the country's repressive
"Its status is illegal, it should have been dissolved," she says. "Nowhere in the world does a
revolutionary court exist 27 years after the revolution. It exists purely as an instrument of social and
Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi. "We are
urging the public in Iran and the world to
Mrs Ebadi, who was jailed for three weeks five years ago after a closed trial, is not only the international voice
but the defender of Iran's dissidents. She and her legal team are representing 21 internet bloggers and
journalists accused of violating the constitution (see main story) by publishing comments critical of the
government on emrooz.com, a website that has since been shut down by authorities.
Asked if the internet was a new front for her work, Mrs Ebadi says: "I am always interested in freedom of
speech. The important thing about this case is that the accused were arrested illegally and they were
detained and interrogated illegally." She hopes her clients, who face jail terms of up to 30 years, will be
acquitted, although she says that will not necessarily make for a successful outcome. "Only when there are
no more cases like this can I allow myself to believe that I have been successful."
She is also representing the family of a Canadian journalist, Zahra Kazemi, who died in custody after a blow
to her head in prison that split her skull.
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Age, the first given to an Australian newspaper since she was
summoned to appear before the Revolutionary Court in December, Mrs Ebadi said she had decided to ignore
all further attempts by the prosecutors to question her until specific charges were laid. "I wrote a letter to the
court telling them I would not appear and right now it is not clear what the response is going to be. This is just
another attempt to intimidate me, to stop me fighting for human rights."
In January she was again given three days to appear before the court or face arrest. So far authorities have
kept their distance.
Mrs Ebadi won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her work over several decades fighting for democracy and the
rights of women and children. She is the first Iranian to receive the accolade and the 11th woman. She was
also one of the first female judges in Iran before being forced to stand down by the clerics when they came to
power in 1979. In the official Nobel citation she was described as a "sound professional, a courageous
person, who has never heeded threats to her own safety". She used the $US1.3-million prize money to
finance more human rights cases.
On winning the prize she called for the release of all political prisoners, a move that infuriated hardliners and
Mrs Ebadi is campaigning against legislation to restrict the right of lawyers to represent clients. Under the
proposal lawyers must be trained by the government-appointed judiciary and required to renew their licences
annually. "If passed the bill will effectively allow the government to control the lawyers. We are urging the
public in Iran and the world to speak out against this."