Iran's Iron Lady is not for turning

Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is standing up against Iran's hardline religious rulers.

epa01583299 Iranian Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi (C) and her colleagues stand in front of their office in Tehran, Iran, 21 December 2008. Iranian police on 21 December closed and sealed-off the office of Ebadi in Tehran which was used a Human Rights Centre. The police went to the office, used by a human rights group headed by Ebadi, called on the staff to leave and then sealed it off. According to the Tehran prosecutor office the closure was because the centre had no legal permit for its activities.  EPA/STRINGER *** Local Caption ***  01583299.jpg
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Diminutive and softly spoken, Shirin Ebadi appears no match for Iran's hardliners, who accuse her of single-handedly striving to undermine the Islamic Revolution. But the first Iranian - and Muslim - woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize seems to be made of steel. The 25 days she once spent in solitary confinement did not silence her. Nor did death threats she received this year. And neither has the closing this weekend of the offices of her Human Rights Defenders Centre in Tehran.

Her response to the police raid on the premises of her small but world-renowned organisation was typically defiant. Such action would have no effect on its work, declared Ms Ebadi, a 61-year-old lawyer who specialises in the rights of women and children and who has taken on high-profile, politically sensitive cases that most male lawyers would never dare touch. "Obviously, such a move does not have positive message for other rights activists in Iran, but my colleagues and I will fulfil our duties under any circumstances," she said. "Shutting down the office without a warrant is illegal and we will protest."

Ms Ebadi urged Washington yesterday not to turn a blind eye to human rights violations and democratic principles in its rush to "talk nuclear" with Iran. Her appeal, made in an interview with an Italian daily newspaper, echoes that of international rights groups that urge western powers not to allow the nuclear standoff to distract them from the worsening human rights situation in Iran. Such talk infuriates the Iranian authorities, who overlook Ms Ebadi's equally forthright criticisms of the West. In the same interview with Corriere della Serra, she called on Barack Obama, the incoming US president, to meet his hardline Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "without preconditions".

The enforced closing of her centre marks a renewed crackdown on rights campaigners before next June's presidential elections. Her organisation recently warned that "freedom of expression and freedom of circulating information have further declined" since Mr Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. The Iranian authorities accused her centre of acting without a permit, having illegal contacts with local and foreign organisations, and distributing propaganda against the state. Her group has been particularly vocal about the curtailment of women's rights under Iranian law, the execution of people convicted of crimes committed when they were under 18, and the rising number of political prisoners in Iran.

Members of Ms Ebadi's centre suspect action was taken against them because the Islamic Republic's human rights record has come under growing international scrutiny recently. The UN General Assembly last week approved a resolution urging Iran to improve its human rights record, while the day before the European Union issued a statement condemning recent "unacceptable" violations, among them the execution of 10 convicts on a single day in November and legal action taken against women's rights activists.

The raid on Ms Ebadi's offices signals that the Iranian regime intends to resist growing pressure over human rights. Yet however much she is a thorn in the side of Iran's hardline wing, the authorities have been wary of tackling her head on. Ms Ebadi is Iran's most prominent human rights activist and is hugely popular with many ordinary Iranians who swelled with pride when she won her Nobel Prize five years ago.

Iranian officials claim that western powers are using Iran's human rights record to deflect attention from their failings in the Middle East and to thwart Iran's regional ambitions. Tehran also accuses the West of double standards by focusing on the human rights situation in such countries as Iran while, for example, ignoring the plight of Gaza's Palestinians who are suffering under a suffocating Israeli blockade.

Ms Ebadi has been as outspoken against human rights abuses by the West as by Iran, however. When she collected her 2003 Nobel Prize - awarded for "her efforts for democracy and human rights" - she criticised US "double standards" in ignoring UN resolutions in the Middle East while using them as a pretext for war in Iraq. She told Corriere della Serra that the United States could not "continue to concern itself exclusively with its own security". Direct talks with Iran were essential. "Iraq has shown us that war is not the best means through which to resolve conflicts. At some point or other, you have to sit down at the same table and talk. There is no other way," she said.

In April, Ms Ebadi said she had received death threats, warning her to "watch your tongue". Mr Ahmadinejad ordered that she be protected and the anonymous threats be investigated. If there were any findings, they were not made public. Ms Ebadi bristles at hardliners' claims that her work provides ammunition for the United States. Unlike Iranian critics of the system who speak out against human rights abuses from the safety of exile in countries such as the US, Ms Ebadi campaigns courageously from within her country. She is also an expert in Islamic law and is religious. A daughter of a famous judge in the shah's time, she was appointed Iran's first female judge in 1975, but was forced to resign after the Islamic Revolution four years later. The ruling ayatollahs decided women were too irrational and emotional to hold such posts.