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Saturday, October 11, 2003

Iranian wins Peace Prize
Activist lawyer first Muslim woman to receive Nobel

Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post

Paris -- Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, who has battled her country's Islamic government for years on behalf of women, street children and political prisoners, won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. She is the first Muslim woman to receive the honor.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which administers the prize, said her selection was intended to promote human rights in Islamic countries and the world as a whole.

Analysts said the decision, announced in the Norwegian capital Oslo, appeared aimed at showing support for moderate Muslims after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which widened the chasm between Islam and Christianity and led to fears that religious intolerance was on the rise.

In Paris, where she was on a visit after attending a conference on women, the soft-spoken Ebadi, 56, said she was at first surprised, then happy because "this gives me enough energy to help me continue my fight."

Arguing that her faith is not a barrier to respect of human rights, she said, "All real Muslims should be really happy with this prize."

Speaking at a packed news conference in the courtyard of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, she appeared, as always when outside of Iran, without a head scarf. That was an act of defiance, friends said, against the strict Islamic government she so frequently opposes, which believes that women must cover their heads as a show of piety.

"If I were living in a country where the rights of women were respected, I wouldn't be as happy as I am today," she said.

At the news conference, in which she spoke mostly in her native Farsi with translations into English and French, she called for the release of all political prisoners held in Iranian jails.

She also criticized the U.S. military interventions in Muslim countries. Asked about Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, in English, "In Iraq and Afghanistan -- especially in Iraq -- people do not have water and electricity. And it is very important for people. How can we talk about human rights and freedom?"


In Tehran, the news of the first Iranian winner of the prestigious prize drew mixed official reaction, reflecting the conflict between the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami and the powerful clerics opposing him.

Reporting from Tehran, the Reuters news agency quoted the editor of the conservative newspaper Resalat as saying, "This prize carries the message that Europe intends to put further pressure on human rights issues in Iran as a political move to achieve its particular objectives."

But Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist, called the move "very good news for every Iranian."

"I am very happy that an Iranian, and above all a woman, has won the Nobel Peace Prize," Abtahi said. "It is a sign of the very active presence of Iranian women on the social and political scene." And in a remark apparently aimed at recent court rulings against reformists, Abtahi said, "The fact that a lawyer has won this prize gives us hope that the judicial system will change its methods."

Ebadi has extensive firsthand knowledge of that system. Under the rule of the pro-Western monarchy of the shah of Iran, she was appointed Iran's first female judge and president of the Tehran city court. But she was forced to resign after the Islamic revolution of 1979.

She remained in the legal world as a lawyer, representing a succession of people with human rights complaints. They included women subjected to domestic abuse, street children and the families of writers and other intellectuals killed in 1999 and 2000. She has also worked to identify people who orchestrated attacks on students protesting for democracy in 1999.

In 2000, she was sentenced to 15 months in prison and was prohibited from practicing law on grounds of defaming the Iranian authorities, but the sentence was reduced to a fine on appeal.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, the Nobel Committee said: "We hope that the prize will be an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in her country, in the Muslim world and in all countries where the fight for human rights needs inspiration and support."

The committee also praised her support for religious freedom, including the rights of Iran's minority Bahai community.


With its selections, the Nobel Committee often weighs in on politically sensitive topics and human rights causes, angering governments that repress democratic freedoms.

In 1989, the prize went to the Dalai Lama just after the Chinese government's massacre of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square. In 1991, the winner was the Burmese opposition leader and winner of her country's first free elections, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest by the military junta that is still ruling in Rangoon.

In 1996, the prize was awarded to East Timorese independence campaigner Jose Ramos-Horta and Timorese Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, infuriating the government in Jakarta, which at the time insisted that East Timor was a province of Indonesia. And last year, former President Jimmy Carter, an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq, got the prize. His selection was announced just as the Bush administration was gearing up to invade.

Ebadi won this year over a field that is believed to have included Pope John Paul II, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and French President Jacques Chirac, for his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The names of candidates are officially secret, but people who make nominations often reveal the names to the media.

This year's prize is worth $1.3 million, and will be awarded at a ceremony Dec. 10 in Oslo, which Ebadi said she will attend. She was due to leave Paris to return to Tehran on Friday, but she stayed on when news of the prize came, said her friend Azadeh Kian-Thiebaut, an Iranian exile and associate political science professor in Paris, who had invited Ebadi to Parish for the women's conference.

©Copyright 2003, The San Fransisco Chronicle (CA, USA)

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