Iranian Nobel winner urges Obama to stress human rights

WASHINGTON -- In 2003, Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former jurist, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on human rights. Despite the dangers to herself and her family, Ebadi still lives and works inside the Islamic Republic of Iran and calls herself a "bone in the throat" of the regime.

In an exclusive interview with McClatchy Wednesday, Ebadi welcomed President Barack Obama into the "family" of Nobel laureates, but warned him not to ignore deteriorating human rights issues in Iran and other nations.

Ebadi urged Obama to use the Nobel Peace Prize to continue to work for peace and human rights.

"At the end of the day, (Obama) brought the world out of the dangerous path that Bush had put it on," she said. "But I was happy for another reason, in the sense that it would commit him more to advancing peace in the international community."

Ebadi, whose clients include women, minorities and dissident journalists in Iran, asked Obama, "with his Nobel hat on," to consider human rights as much as nuclear weapons when he negotiates with the Iranian regime.

"If the Iranian government basically halts its (uranium) enrichment process, is the U.S. administration still going to extend the hand of friendship to a government whose human rights record is as such?" she asked. "Do human rights not matter at all? Does it not matter at all how people get killed in Iran?"

At least 4,000 people were arrested during mass protests in the streets of major Iranian cities over the summer after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets, dressed in green to oppose him.

Now, officials say, at least 300 people are still behind bars. Three people, said to be involved in the street unrest, were reportedly sentenced to death after what appeared to be sham trials and forced confessions. Already, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has voiced concerns about the sentences. Other show trials and harsh sentences are expected. Iranian journalists including Maziar Bahari, who works for Newsweek, remain behind bars with no access to attorneys.

Obama has been cautious in dealing with human rights issues in Iran. He was slow to publicly condemn the regime's crackdown, which appeared to jeopardize his hopes of diplomatic engagement with Iran, until an international outcry prompted him to sharpen his tone.

When Undersecretary of State William Burns met for 45 minutes with a top Iranian official during multinational nuclear negotiations on Oct. 1 in Geneva, Burns did raise U.S. concerns about human rights, according to a senior U.S. official who wasn't authorized to speak publicly and briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

Ebadi is a strong believer in change through peace. She doesn't want to overhaul the system in Iran, she said. She merely wants the system to represent the people.

She also noted that protests continue. Every Saturday, mothers dressed in black gather for an hour in parks carrying photos of their imprisoned or dead children, she said.

Students still clash with police, and chant "the coup government must resign" or in some cases "down with Russia," the nation that helped build Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor.

The nation has a severe brain drain, as smart young Iranians are forced to leave Iran for work. About 70 percent of the country is younger than 35. Inflation is rising, and people's anger stems from the lack of jobs and money as Iran pays out cash to groups in other nations.

"People's satisfaction will be removed when the government alters its policies altogether," she said, referring to the Iranian government's financial support of foreign militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Iranians struggle with rising unemployment and inflation. "The Iranian government hasn't even undertaken the reconstruction of Bam, the city that was destroyed as a result of a massive earthquake" on Dec. 26, 2003.

Ebadi said that economic sanctions won't change the behavior of the Iranian regime, however, and would only make life harder for Iranians. The answer comes from political sanctions, she said. She asks countries with diplomatic relations to pull their ambassadors and leave their administrative staff.

"I'm in favor of political actions that can hurt the government," she said. "With this action against the Iranian government its violence towards its people has consequences on its diplomatic relations. People won't be harmed by this action."

In addition, while in the U.S., Ebadi is seeking a U.N. human rights representative for Iran. Such U.N. intervention would help bring world attention to Iran's treatment of its citizens.

As for Obama, Ebadi thinks he's done plenty to deserve his Nobel Peace Prize.

"The health plan alone in the United States and taking care of your homeless is a very significant step towards peace," she said. "The Nobel award forces a commitment on Mr. Obama to peace and human rights around the world. On my behalf please tell Obama that he is welcome into the large family of Nobel laureates. "

(Warren P. Strobel also contributed to this article.)


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