As part of the Iranian regime’s confrontation with human rights activists and advocates, the recent harsh attacks on Nobel Peace laurette Shirin Ebadi have made it pay dearly.
Silence on the part of many political activists who have focused their entire energy on a victory in the upcoming presidential election is questionable. I say “questionable,” because it is questionable why the Iranian government has chosen to impose such a cost on itself, given Shirin Ebadi’s reputation outside of Iran and the influence that her speeches and coverage have on swaying global opinion. This has meaning.
The first analysis that comes to mind explaining the state’s costly move is that the closure of the Center for Defense of Human Rights and attacks on its founder, Shirin Ebadi, are serous warnings to other human rights defenders in Iran. That includes lawyers active at the Center, who, more than any other group, have voluntarily defended the rights of civil society, human rights and other political activists in recent years. Many people obtain information about the cases of political, social, civil, human rights, women’s rights, students, workers and teachers union activists from attorney reports and interviews. Many civil society activists relied on their assistance when in danger and were certain that, in the case any unfortunate event happens, there is a lawyer who will speak and seek justice on their behalf.
We all know that volunteering to defend people accused of “acting against national security,” is no small feat. One cannot forget what happened to critical dissidents during the dangerous and tumultuous days of the chain murders in the 1990s. We also know that, in such circumstances, representing a client can have dire consequences for the attorney. Therefore, the systemic confrontation and pressure on a group of lawyers who volunteer to represent political and ideological prisoners is not simply to confront them but is an attempt to isolate all activists who rely on their representation. Through this, a group of activists is naturally deprived of the right to representation by attorneys who themselves are under security pressures, and another group, thinking that having attorneys who are themselves under pressure can be more costly, choose isolation or less activist lawyers. Either way, the person harmed the most is the defendant who is not given the right to be represented by a lawyer who believes in equality and human rights.
But the other dimension to recent attacks is a warning signal about the “behavior” of the Iranian regime, especially in light of the international prestige of Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Many of us – at least those in Iran – always thought that Ebadi was secure, and was backed by so much international prestige that when she reported physical threats against her and family members’ lives, the Iranian president would be forced to promise that she would be safe (something that was done in April 2008, after threats were made on Shirin Ebadi’s life.)
Many of us had the good feeling that the Center headed by Ebadi, published quarterly reports covering human rights violations in our country; and that Ebadi occassionally held a press conference at the Center and challenged human rights violators. But today… she herself is subject to the most dangerous attacks.
Attacking Ebadi means that the Iranian regime is ready to pay the highest price for confronting human rights defenders in Iran. Confronting her is confronting everyone who – whether individually or as part of a group – has entered that circle in society which challenges discrimination and inequality. This is a serious threat that must be responded to. If the human rights society in Iran is unable to defend itself, how can it claim to defend others?
But we have a word for those politicians who claim to support human rights and civil society, but have failed to react appropriately to recent threats. How can they hope to earn the trust and votes of the public when they remain silent in face authoritarian attacks on human rights defenders?