04.19.11

Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi Warns of Deadly Crackdown in Iran

Two years after fleeing Iran, the Nobel Peace Prize winner says human-rights violations are rising in her homeland and opposition leaders are virtually prisoners, Babak Dehghanpisheh reports.

Two years after fleeing Iran, the Nobel Peace Prize winner says human-rights violations are rising in her homeland and opposition leaders are virtually prisoners, Babak Dehghanpisheh reports. Plus, Ebadi’s letter to the U.N. about the crackdown.

Iran hasn’t been dominating the headlines as unrest has swept across the Middle East. But the situation inside the country is hardly quiet. Since Saturday, more than a dozen people have been killed in clashes with security forces in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, according to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi. “The government of Iran has been putting people in prison, arresting and executing them,” she said during an interview in New York.

Human-rights activists, like Ebadi, have long highlighted cases of discrimination and violence against Iran’s Sunni minorities, such as the Arabs who make up the bulk of the population in Iran’s southwest. Ebadi sent a letter to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights on Monday describing the government crackdown in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province. She would also like to see the United States play a bigger role in highlighting human-rights violations. “In the U.S., the nuclear issue is very important but it shouldn’t overshadow the human-rights violations in Iran,” she said. “There’s been a string of human-rights violations.”

It’s been nearly two years since Ebadi visited her native Iran. She left the country only one day before its disputed elections on June, 12, 2009, to attend a conference in Spain and hasn’t gone back since. She fears the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would lock her up if she sets foot in the country. The government has already tried to pressure her through other means: Both her husband and her sister were arrested, though later released when it became clear that she wouldn’t be going back home.

“They wanted to put pressure on me,” she said. “I said, ‘I love my husband and my sister but I love justice even more.’” Her husband and sister, along with members of her extended family, are now forbidden to leave the country. “In reality, they’re hostages,” she said. The government has also confiscated much of Ebadi’s private property.

Still, none of these actions seems to have deterred the 63-year-old lawyer. In fact, she’s used her position in exile to frequently speak out and criticize the Iranian government. She claimed that the leaders of the opposition Green Movement, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are essentially imprisoned in Tehran and are not able to move around the country freely or even order their own food. But their supporters haven’t disappeared. “Iranians are like fire under the ashes,” she said. “The slightest wind can blow it away and stir up the fire.”

“Iranians are like fire under the ashes. The slightest wind can blow it away and stir up the fire.”

And if the protests flare up again, it could be Iran that would lead the way for change in the Middle East, she said. “The situation in Iran can impact the rest of the Middle East.”

Babak Dehghanpisheh is Newsweek's Beirut bureau chief. He's been covering the Middle East for Newsweek since 2001.