When Iranian Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work as a lawyer and human-rights activist, the regime in Tehran faced a dilemma. The award infuriated the country’s hard-liners, but the regime privately acknowledged that it had also earned Ebadi the admiration of most Iranians. Reluctant to arrest or openly target such a popular figure, the government tolerated Ebadi’s activities and limited itself to low-level harassment of her legal office.
That tacit policy has now changed. As part of an intensifying campaign to silence Iran’s opposition, authorities in Tehran last week confiscated Ebadi’s Nobel medal from a safety deposit box and froze her bank account, according to Ebadi and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, which protested on behalf of the Nobel Committee in Oslo. A spokesman for the Iranian government denied that the medal was seized and said Ebadi’s assets were frozen due to her failure to pay taxes.
Which is why the government’s recent crackdown on Ebadi has many Iran experts so perplexed. Most believe that Ebadi’s role in Iran’s domestic scene doesn’t warrant Tehran’s making a spectacle. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has effectively sidelined Ebadi from public life since 2005. By censoring newspapers that once carried her articles, blocking news websites that reported on her work and creating a climate of intimidation in which Ebadi would scarcely risk making a public address in Iran, the government had succeeded in reducing her voice to a rare whisper most often heard from abroad.
But Iran’s human-rights violations have not gone unreported. In the past few years, the rise of muckraking independent news outlets and news websites has emerged to spread the word on official abuses. Iran has changed dramatically since the mid-1990s, when Ebadi functioned as almost the sole conduit for news of abuses. In that era, families of abuse victims often went to Ebadi first. She brought prominence to their cases by taking them to trial and speaking to journalists who in turn covered the proceedings. If the world learned about the cases of rape and extrajudicial killings that made Iran’s human-rights record so notorious, it was because Ebadi disclosed them by going before the judiciary.