Interview With Shirin Ebadi On Iran’s Human Rights Record

Dr. Shirin Ebadi is an Iranian lawyer, a former judge and the founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her important work in promoting democracy and human rights. She was the first Iranian ever to have won the prize.

In a recent interview with Nazenin Ansari, the managing editor of Kayhan.London, Dr. Ebadi spoke about the EU’s unwillingness to pressure Iran over its human rights record, the imprisonment of dual nationals, efforts to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, settling the legal dispute with the UK over the 1976 arms deal, and possible changes to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.

Dr. Shirin Ebadi

Nazenin Ansari: Welcome to our program. My guest today is one of the most prominent Iranian figures, Dr. Shirin Ebadi. Mrs. Ebadi is the founder of Defenders of Human Rights Centre in Iran and the winner of 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.

Nazenin Ansari

Mrs. Ebadi, welcome to our program. My first question is about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe [a 37 year old British-Iranian woman who is currently serving a five-year sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison on charges of plotting to topple the Iranian regime.] A number of protesters, including Emma Thomson [British actress, screenwriter], held a march in support of Nazanin on November 25, 2017 in London.

They’ve called on the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to secure her release. He will be travelling to Tehran soon for talks with Iranian officials. There are some suggestions that Nazanin will be given diplomatic immunity by the UK government in an effort to facilitate her release. Also on the agenda is the payment of £450 million which the UK owes Iran. Do you think these two measures would help Nazanin’s case?

Shirin Ebadi: Warmest greetings to you and my fellow Iranians. There are more than 30 dual nationals who are currently in jail in Iran including Nazanin. They are in effect held hostage by the Iranian government. At the time of her arrest, Nazanin was on holiday visiting her family in Iran. Iranian state TV [IRIB] recently broadcast a montage of old video clips which showed Nazanin training journalists many years ago. The segment was also posted on social media. The video only proves that Nazanin trained reporters many years ago.

Nazanin specialized in public relations. She worked [as a project manager] for the Thomson Reuters Foundation [the Canadian-owned news agency Thomson Reuters’ charitable arm]. This organization has a department for training reporters. Assuming that all the information in the video segment is accurate, then it only proves that Nazanin had trained some reporters a few years ago. Is this a crime? Iranian criminal law doesn’t recognize teaching as an offense. So accusing her of “training spies” is a bogus charge – completely fabricated by the Iranian government. It’s trumped up by the Judiciary. There is absolutely no doubt that she is innocent. That’s why I consider her to be a hostage.

Iran purchased [hundreds of Chieftain] tanks [at a cost of £650 million] from the UK in 1976. It, however, received only a few tanks, and the rest were never delivered, due to the 1979 Islamic Revolution [and the outbreak of war with Iraq and Western sanctions on Tehran.] The UK government has made no effort in the past four decades to either deliver the rest of the tanks or refund Iran. We are, therefore, facing two sets of facts: namely Iran’s [legitimate] demands from the UK government, and Nazanin’s [irrefutable] innocence.

I’ve always insisted that human rights should not be mixed with politics. And Nazanin’s case is a good example of that. Mr. Boris Johnson’s controversial comments in the UK Parliament [in November 2017, claiming that Nazanin was “teaching journalism” in Tehran] have been used by his opponents against him. They’ve taken the opportunity to call for his resignation.

But none of those [UK politicians] who have been criticizing Johnson had previously made any effort to secure the release of Nazanin from jail. They didn’t care about the plight of this innocent woman. They used her case as a means to attack Johnson. They demanded that Johnson should travel to Iran and negotiate Nazanin’s release.

Subsequently, two ideas were put forward in order to escape this political quagmire. One was the notion of giving Nazanin diplomatic immunity. It is unlikely that they will implement this. Such immunity is reserved for diplomats only. Taking legal action against a person with diplomatic immunity constitutes a confrontation with the country he or she represents. It makes no sense to give Nazanin diplomatic immunity. There is no precedent for it. And for good reason. Just imagine if anyone who is detained anywhere in the world were granted diplomatic immunity. You cannot run a country like that. I don’t know who proposed this idea. Mr. Johnson might have thought of it in order to get himself out of trouble.

Iran is justified in asking the UK government to pay pack the money it received nearly four decades ago for the Chieftain tanks which were never delivered. It is a legitimate demand. But it is absurd to link this payment with the release of an innocent woman. It is ludicrous for the government to say that it won’t release her until the UK has refunded the money it owes Iran.

The UK government has apparently agreed to these terms. There is a name for this. It’s called extortion – holding someone hostage to collect ransom. Somalian pirates use the same tactic. They capture innocent people and release them after receiving ransoms. What is the difference between the Iranian government and Somalian pirates? It is absolutely unacceptable for a government to resort to such methods as a way of asserting its demands.   

Q: Both the UK and the Iranian government deny that the two issues are connected in any way. Do you think this a political game?

A: It is absolutely a political game. And as far as I know, the Iranian government has received the money already. I can’t be absolutely certain, but I have information to that effect. We expect Nazanin to be pardoned and released soon. I must emphasize that Nazanin should have never been arrested in the first place. I should also warn that once you pay ransom to a country, you would encourage it to use extortion as a method of choice to achieve its objectives.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama made the same mistake. Jason Rezaian [Tehran correspondent for the Washington Post] and three other Iranian-Americans including Amir Hekmati [former U.S. Marine who spent more than four years in prison on spying charges] had been arrested and jailed in Iran. Obama had promised to secure their release.

For many years Iran had demanded that the U.S. [unfreeze Iranian assets] which Washington had ignored. On the sidelines of the 2015 nuclear agreement [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA], Iran and the U.S. struck a secret deal regarding the release of the four hostages in exchange for the return of Iranian assets. [The four hostages including Rezaian were released in January 2016.]

After returning to the U.S., Rezaian gave an interview in which he said that on the day of his release the plane carrying him out of Iran had remained on the runway for a long time. He had asked about the reason for the long delay, and had been told that his plane would take off as soon as another one, which was carrying a precious cargo, would land. Rezaian said that he saw large suitcases being unloaded from a plane which landed little while later. It was only then that his plane was allowed to take off.

Those suitcases contained a large amount of cash. I cannot recall the exact amount. Obama in effect gave back the money [$400 million] which rightfully belonged to Iran. The question is why Mr. Obama who is a legal expert [constitutional lawyer] should make such a deal? To pay cash in order to secure the release of innocent hostages. [Iran’s Foreign Minister] Javad Zarif and other government officials have always maintained that they do not interfere in the independent work of the executive branch and the Judiciary.

Jason Rezaian and Amir Hekmati and others had been tried on espionage charges and given long jail sentences. They were released only after a ransom was paid. Doesn’t this undermine the credibility of the courts and judicial system which had sentenced them to jail? And if they were completely innocent, why were they arrested in the first place?

I have to repeat what I said earlier. This is exactly what Somalian pirates do. They capture innocent people and hold them hostage in order to extort money. They eventually release their hostages after being paid ransom.

The Iranian government’s demands from the U.S., the UK and other countries are well justified in many cases. But these claims have nothing to do with the citizens of those countries. A government cannot wrongly imprison innocent people as a means to assert its legitimate demands.

Q: There are currently three other British-Iranians in jail in Iran including Mr. Kamal Foroughi [serving an eight-year jail sentence on “espionage” charges since 2011.] What do you think is going to happen to them?

A: They are not as fortunate as Nazanin. As I mentioned, Boris Johnson’s controversial comments in the parliament brought a lot of attention to her case.

Q: Her husband’s [Richard Ratcliffe] relentless campaign for her release has also drawn a lot of attention to Nazanin’s plight.

A: Certainly. I don’t refute Nazanin’s innocence or the efforts by her husband, colleagues, family, friends and supporters inside and outside Iran to bring about her release. But the fact of the matter is that Mr. Johnson’s comments created a political storm which gave an excuse to his opponents to go after him.

As the consequence, the UK government went into damage-control mode by trying to meet the demands of the Iranian government. It was an exercise in self-preservation. If that hadn’t happened, Iran wouldn’t have been in a position to make any demands. I feel sorry for the people who are used as pawns in political games.

Q: A delegation of 70 senior EU officials headed by Helga Schmid [Secretary General of European External Action Service (EEAS)] recently visited Iran. There hasn’t been any information about whether the delegation discussed human rights issue with the Iranian officials.

A: The truth is that the Europeans like to hold talks. This wasn’t the first time a European delegation had held discussions on human rights with Iranian officials. There have been many such meetings in the past. Despite all the discussions, Iran’s human rights record has not improved at all. As far as I am concerned, the Europeans like to go through the motions. It is all meant to show that they are engaging and pressuring Iran, but ultimately they make no real attempt and achieve nothing.

Let me be frank. If the Europeans were serious about addressing human rights issues in Iran, they should have met the families of the political prisoners and not just senior government officials. Instead they hold talks behind closed doors at the Foreign Ministry or luxury hotels where they drink tea and exchange lies with their Iranian hosts. That’s the extent of their discussions on the issue of human rights. European officials, the Iranian government and the people know that these discussions do not yield any meaningful results.

Q: Your organization, Defenders of Human Rights Centre, monitors human rights violations in Iran. How do you assess Iran’s human rights record since the signing of the JCPOA in 2015 [the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, also known as Iran nuclear deal?]

A: Since its establishment, the Defenders of Human Rights Center has regularly published reports on Iran’s human rights record, both in English and Farsi. We send these reports to the U.N. and all other organizations which monitor human rights violations in Iran.

Unfortunately, we have not seen any improvement in Iran’s dismal human rights record since the JCPOA. We can see examples of gross violations of human rights in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Swedish-Iranian researcher Mr. Ahmadreza Jalili [in jail since 2016 on charges of “espionage” and “enmity with God”.] He has been sentenced to death. I have no idea what Iran is trying to extort from Sweden. I suppose that by sentencing Jalali to death, Tehran has signaled to Stockholm to hurry up and pay the ransom.

Q: Mr. Jalali was invited by Tehran University to visit Iran.

A: That’s correct. Also, Mr. Nazar Zaka, a Lebanese-American and an information technology expert, was invited [in September 2015 by Shahindokht Malavardi, presidential adviser on women and family affairs at the time] to attend a seminar in Tehran. His lecture was well received by the participants, the Iranian government and President Hassan Rouhani. He was, however, arrested at the airport on his way back to the U.S. He was charged with espionage. If he was a spy, then the authorities should have questioned Mr. Rouhani whose government had invited Mr. Zaka. And if he is innocent, then why should he be detained and held hostage?

The Judiciary lacks any credibility among the Iranian public and the international community. When asked to facilitate the release of political prisoners and dual nationals jailed in Iran, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif always offers the same lame excuse, namely that other branches of the government cannot interfere with the independent function of the Judiciary. Needless to say, no-one ever believes him.

Q: I know quite a number of Iranian businessmen, some of whom argue that even if the government jails a million people, the other 79 million Iranians would live a better life. What is the proper response to this absurd assertion?

A: If arresting one million people could guarantee a better life for the other 79 million Iranians, then it would make sense to ponder the thought. We may even deem the idea as plausible. But how could we be certain that the other 79 million would be living a better life? That’s the real problem.

The truth is that the other 79 million Iranians would be struggling with rampant poverty, a weaker Rial, an incompetent Judiciary and a high rate of unemployment. Meanwhile, the remaining one million people would continue to suffer in jail. So this is what we call bad logic. It is an absurd, childish and ridiculous argument. 

Q: Mohammad Javad Larijani, secretary of High Council for Human rights of the Judiciary of Iran has described the EU’s human rights policies as silly and rude. What is your view on this?

 A: Let’s not forget the prevailing culture within the ruling elite of the Islamic Republic. At a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Mr. Larijani was extremely rude to the [former] U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic, Mr. Ahmed Shaheed [2011-16.] He was admonished and warned that he would be expelled from the meeting if he continued his unacceptable behavior. Mr. Larijani should first learn good manners, and stop criticizing and insulting others.

 Q: Mr. Larijani defines democracy within the framework of Islamic doctrine. Is there democracy in Iran? Are democracy and Islam compatible? 

 A: Comparatively speaking, Iran is far more advanced than Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and many other countries. But it is not at the same level as Britain and France. We shouldn’t use a country as a means to measure democracy. The Islamic Republic has always deflected criticism by pointing to Saudi Arabia. We should measure democracy by how satisfied the people are with the government and the prevailing condition in the country. Do Iranians consider the elections free and fair? The first rule of democracy is that power must be shared with the people.

 According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Valiyeh Faqih [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] holds all the power. An election is a two-stage process. First, the Guardian Council has to vet the candidates. And then people are given the opportunity to choose between those candidates who have been qualified. Is this democracy? It might be, if we were to compare Iran to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, this is not the system that the Iranian people want. People’s demands are the true measure of democracy. Iran is, therefore, not a true democracy.

 Q: You have always maintained that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic must change. Who should write the new constitution? Would you take on the responsibility of drafting a new constitution? Have you discussed the issue with other people and groups?

 A: It is not difficult to draft a new constitution. There are many legal experts who could do it. The question is how to replace the existing Constitution with a more democratic one. This is more of a political process than a legal procedure. People in power don’t easily relinquish their authority. Only public pressure could persuade those in charge to give up some of their power for the good of the country and people. This is a political issue.

 Q: Is there going to be a concerted effort to change the constitution? Will you take on the responsibility?

 A: I’m not political. I’ve said it many times. I’m a human rights advocate. That’s my remit. In my articles, books and speeches, I highlight Iran’s undemocratic Constitution. Some articles of the Constitution must change in order to establish true democracy in Iran. Political power must be transferred to the people.

Separation of state and religion is one of the pillars of a true democracy. Anytime religion gains political power it manipulates and exploits people’s emotions. Europe experienced this during the Middle Ages. And the Islamic Republic is a more recent example of this phenomenon.

The Islamic Republic has, in many ways, eroded people’s religious faith. It has committed many atrocities and injustices, all in the name of religion. As a human rights advocate my duty is to inform and educate the public. I’m not a political leader, and don’t have any plan for the transfer of power. I’m a human rights activist.

 Q: As a woman and a mother, are you optimistic about Iran’s future? Do you think conditions will improve in Iran in the coming decade?

 A: Iran has a lot of potential. A big segment of the population is under 30 years old. We have good universities and academic centers. We have advanced in the field of science and technology. Iran has a rich culture. The feminist movement in Iran is strong. It is a source of great pride.

There are a number of courageous Iranian activists inside and outside the country who are prepared to risk their lives in order to protect other people’s human rights. These point to a bright future for Iran. But liberty and democracy come at a cost. We must endure pain and hardships. I am, however, certain that we will overcome all obstacles and achieve what we deserve.

 Q: Thank you for accepting our invitation.

 A: Thank you for giving me this opportunity.   


  1. Thank you miss Ansari,a great interview,always you find the best at the right time and thank you ,miss Ebadi , for what you not only say but what you do,not only words but doing great deeds. I attended one of your lectures in University of Utah not very long time ago.You made all of us proud,so proud! When was the last time i had such a pleasant feeling. In America disclosing your venereal disease is easier than telling the folks where are you come from!Thanks for the beasts and morons who have occupied our homeland .You made me proud because you masterfully separated we Iranians,from this savage regime and still doing the same.I could breath better and walk tall again , at least for that good evening.A delayed thank you ,but noting has change, you are doing the same,making us holding up our heads,not hiding behind the walls.Thank you.YOUR HONOR.indeed

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