Iranian wins Nobel Peace Prize

Human rights activist is first Muslim woman to be awarded honor

October 11, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

OSLO, Norway - Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer who spent three weeks in prison in connection with her work, won the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday. The recognition for her efforts promoting the rights of women and children in Iran made her the first Muslim woman to win the honor.

In awarding the prize to Ebadi, a "courageous person," the Nobel committee said it wished to prod the Muslim world into recognizing that Islam and human rights can go hand in hand. It also hoped to embolden the struggling reform movement in Iran at a time of widespread turbulence and upheaval in the Middle East.

Iran, a nation of 66 million Muslims, is in the midst of a power struggle between Islamic conservatives and modernists, led by embattled President Mohammad Khatami, and is under intense international scrutiny over the question of nuclear weapons.

Ebadi, 56, a lawyer, writer and university lecturer, has spent three decades advancing human rights in Iraq and fostering a dialogue between hard-liners and reformists. At a news conference in Paris, where she was paying a visit, Ebadi immediately tested her newfound acclaim by calling for the release of political prisoners in Iran and cautioning the United States not to intervene in Iran's domestic affairs.

"Today many people who fight for liberty and democracy are in prison, and I hope for their release as soon as possible," Ebadi said. "I call on the Iranian government to respect human rights, and I hope in the future things will move positively."

In Iran, news that a human rights lawyer had won one of the world's most celebrated prizes, an award that typically carries political overtones, was received with mixed reactions.

It took several hours for state-run radio to make the announcement, and the first reports were brief and muted in tone. The evening television news buried its cursory mention of the Nobel Prize.

"In the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran's government, I congratulate Dr. Ebadi," Abdollah Ramazanzadeh, spokesman for Iran's reformist government, said in the first official reaction, according to Reuters.

A representative of Khatami would show support by attending a welcoming ceremony on her return to the country, he said.

In a pointed critique of the United States, which accuses Iran of secretly working to develop nuclear weapons, Ebadi said outsiders have no right to meddle.

"The fight for human rights is conducted in Iran by the Iranian people, and we are against any foreign intervention in Iran," she said.

Ebadi, who said she did not know she had been nominated for the prize, also underscored the committee's central point in making her a Nobel laureate. "There is no contradiction between Islam and human rights," Ebadi said. "If a country abuses human rights in the name of Islam, then it is not the fault of Islam."

Reading a statement on behalf of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, its chairman, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, said Edabi was a "sound professional" who "has never heeded the threats to her own safety."

"Her principal arena is the struggle for basic human rights, and no society deserves to be labeled civilized unless the rights of women and children are respected," he said. "In an era of violence, she has consistently supported nonviolence. It is fundamental to her view that the supreme political power in a community must be built on democratic elections."

European leaders appeared jubilant over the selection of an Iranian woman who works as an advocate for human rights.

President Jacques Chirac of France called her an "exceptional choice," and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany celebrated her dedication to "tolerant coexistence and an understanding between cultures."

Edabi beat out a record 164 other nominees, including Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, and Pope John Paul II.

Many ordinary Iranians and the country's intelligentsia consider her a symbol of courage and persistence. Most independent rights advocates in Iran have been forced into exile or into silence.

"Ms. Edabi was an icon for defending the weakest in society, but she always adopted lawful and peaceful means," said Alireza Alavitabar, a reformist politician in Tehran.

Ebadi was Iran's first woman to be a judge, a position she was forced to give up after the 1979 Islamic revolution barred women from the bench.

As a lawyer, she has made a habit of defending dissidents, their relatives and Iran's women.

The activist has written numerous articles and books, including one titled The History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran. She was jailed for three weeks in 2000 for distributing a politically sensitive tape.

Shirin Ebadi

Age: 56, born in Hamadan, Iran

Education: Received her law degree from Tehran University in 1971.

Experience: Appointed Iran's first woman judge in 1977; forced to resign as judge after 1979 Islamic revolution; practiced law and defended dissidents in 2000; after being convicted of slandering government official, she was suspended from practicing law for three years; known as a forceful advocate for women and children.

Family: Married with two children.

-- AP

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