Shortly after Shirin Ebadi was released from prison three years ago , she gave an interview that was published in Iran in the feminist journal, Jens-e Dovom. Bad Jens translated the interview and posted it in its fourth edition. Several months later, a member of Bad Jens had a scary encounter with authorities and in the panic that ensued, the article was mistakenly removed from the site. In light of Ms. Ebadi's recent Nobel Peace Prize award, we dug up the interview for your reading pleasure…
An arrested attorney, and her wishes and worries By Lily Farhadpour
At 6 PM, 28th of June 2000, Shirin Ebadi puts down the phone, and thinks only one thing: “Receiving a summons after business hours cannot possibly be a good sign”.
The phone rang again. It was Mehrangiz Kar, who was her close friend and also her attorney, enquiring about what had happened. Mehrangiz herself had just been released from prison a week earlier.
The court officer who came for Shirin had to wait an hour because she had to inform her husband and brother so they could accompany her. She also had to tell her mother to take care of her daughters.
At the station, the questioning did not take long and the arrangements for her detainment were quickly made. Outside, there was a car waiting to take her to prison for further questioning. She only thought of her brother and husband, who had to return home to her daughters, and of her mother, who was anxiously waiting for news. She did not want them to be worrying alone any longer.
From time to time, she would ask: “Have you told the others that the questioning is over, and that I'm being transferred to prison?” And the officers would reply that it was taken care of. Nevertheless, she asked one more time before getting into the car. And again, they replied the same. Relieved, she got in. It was 9:30 pm when the car headed towards Evin prison.
After her release 25 days later, she learned that her husband and brother had been waiting outside until late for news about her. Upon a great deal of insisting, they were finally informed of her transfer from the officer on duty.
I met with Shirin for a short visit, a few days after the first sentence was passed. The sentence read 15 months imprisonment, and a ban from practicing law for 5 years.
She still feels sad when she remembers her waiting companions on that night and is angry about the officers' breach of promise: “My brother and my husband waited for me until past midnight. It was 1:30 am when they arrived home. Imagine what my mother and daughters went through, not having any news until that late.”
All of her 25 days of detainment were spent in solitary confinement, in ward No. 209, one of the women's cells. She was there alone, in absolute silence.
“During detainment”, she says, “the officer's behavior was good, the food was fine enough, and medical care was accessible – but I was forbidden to read books.”
I asked her how her days were spent. “Often, I would read the mafatih [a prayer book] which I had taken with me, and I also read the Qoran, which was already in the cell.” After 18 days they allowed her to use the library, “but the prison library was available only to men. So they chose some books and brought them to me.”
In 1969, Shirin Ebadi applied for a position at the Ministry of Justice. In 1975, at the age of only 28, she became the first Iranian woman to be appointed judge.
Since 1993, she has worked as an attorney, and has dealt with a number of important cases, like the one of “Little Arian”, the little girl who died under the abuse of her father and stepmother.
One should also mention the case of Ezatholah Ebrahimnejad, a young man killed in the “university incident” of July 1999. The police had searched the universities for students who were involved in the demonstrations or who were talking politics. Later, “unknown” paramilitary groups attacked the students in the presence of police officers.
I asked her how she had become Ebrahimnejad's lawyer. Shirin explained: “A few months after the event, I read an interview with Ebrahimnejad's father in a newspaper. He said he had decided to sell his home to be able to pay a lawyer's wages. I said to myself, “What kind of place are we living in!”, and I wrote a letter to that newspaper, saying I would accept the case free of charge. Afterwards, I learned that other lawyers had done the same. But Ebrahimnejad's family chose me. It was for a simple reason…”
But the reason was not so simple. Indeed it shows how complicated gender issues are in Iran. Among Ebrahimnejad's family, only his sister could follow the case, and she preferred a woman lawyer because she would feel more comfortable, and because there would be no talking behind her back.
“But the presence of her father”, Shirin continued, “was necessary for signing the documents. When he came over, I found out he was still paying the loan he had gotten for his son's university fees. He said all he now had was the body of his son on his hands.”
When asked about her other cases, she referred to the Forouhar family, i.e. Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar, who were murdered two years ago by security police. Shirin is the lawyer of Parastoo and Arash Forouhar [the couple's daughter and son]. “When the court announced the sentence”, she mentioned, “I thought that I was done. But then they announced they would allow attorneys to read all the documents, so my investigation had actually only begun.”
Another of Shirin's cases concerned Leila Fathahi, the eleven year old Kurdish girl who had been savagely raped by three men. They killed her and hid her body, which was found after a week. Shirin explained: “The three men were arrested, but only one of them confessed, and after a few months he committed suicide. So the only evidence we had disappeared. The others were condemned to pay qesas”. The law of qesas, which is the penal law used in the Islamic Republic, is based on the right of the victim or victim's family to demand retribution from the perpetrator of the crime against them (cf. Women, Work & Islamism, by Maryam Poya).
“After the suicide, Leila's father was asked to pay qesas himself. Otherwise, he was told, no one would be punished. He was forced to sell all his property, and for months he spent his nights at the Imam's tomb. But the sentence was not carried out, because one of the killers escaped, and the appeals court acquitted the last of the three, who was released. I tried to reverse the last sentence, and fortunately, the high court of appeals ruled in my favor. So now myself, Leila's family, and the law are all looking for him – among 60 million Iranians – in order to hold a new trial.”
When Shirin thinks of the delays her cases have undergone, she's surprised by the short time it took her own sentence to be issued.
Accepting such tough cases free of charge is common in Iran, and Shirin has accepted a number of them:
— Jame-e salem magazine, which was shut down two years ago. — Abbas Maroofi, editor of Gardoon magazine, shut down about four years ago (currently in appeals court). — Dr. Asadollah Peyman, a political activist. — Faraj Sarkohi, editor of Adineh, who was arrested two years ago etc., etc.
“All of those were free of charge”, she explains, “if I had to pay rent for my office, I wouldn't be able to afford it.”
Her office is located on the lower floor of her house. I could hear the voices of children playing in a yard during the interview. Shirin is also head of an NGO called the National Association in Support of Children's Rights.
I asked her to speak about herself a bit more. “When women were banned from judgeship”, she said, “I retired from the Ministry of Justice, which amounted to starting a career in begging.” She applied for attorneyship, but had to wait eight years for a license. During that time, she wrote several books, the first one being about children rights. The book, which won a prize at Al Zahra University, has been translated into English by UNICEF. ” Before that”, she says, “no one had any idea about children's rights in Iran. I had to introduce and explain what children's rights are.”
She then published a book called Comparing Children's Rights, in which she compared the Convention on the Rights of the Child to children's rights in Iran. “Gradually”, she continued, “I became more interested in human rights issues. I wrote Refugee Rights in Iran followed by Human Rights History and Documentation in Iran.”
The latter was translated at Columbia University, and was published in the US. Shirin has a number of other books on law in Iran to her name. “I'm the first lawyer who had a book translated into English and published abroad”, she says, “and my book on human rights has become a reference.”
But what happened to Shirin prior to her arrest? In February of 2000, an elderly, retired man came to Shirin's office, asking her to be his son's lawyer. His son had been arrested following the university incident. But his explanations weren't clear enough, so she didn't accept the case.
In March, as the judge was about to convene the trial concerning the incident, Shirin decided to mention the retired gentleman to her colleague, Mr. Rohami, who was representing the student protesters. Soon after, the man came to Shirin's office again. But this time, his son, Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, was with him, and Mr. Rohami was in the know, so Shirin accepted.
Two months later, in June of 2000, Mr. Rohami and Shirin Ebadi were arrested. They were accused of working against the Islamic Republic, in connection with video recordings of what Amir Farshad Ebrahimi had told them. In the video, Ebrahimi, who was facing charges for attacking students, revealed himself as a member of the vigilante groups who frequently appeared at gatherings to beat up students and reformists. He exposed the inner workings of the groups' goings-on and accused influential conservative figures of playing a role in recent attacks on reformist activists. Shortly after the tape was made, he was detained by the judiciary and while in custody, retracted his statements and claimed the video was a “forced confession”.
I asked her: “If your sentence is upheld in the appeals court, you will be banned from practicing law for five years. What do you intend to do?”. She answered, “I waited for my license to work as an attorney for eight years, and now, after only seven years of work, they want to deprive me again. I don't know… perhaps I'll write more books. I want to do research on human rights and try to secure those rights for my people. My academic duty is to prove that we can be Muslim and faithful to Islamic tenets while striving for better laws…. We can also be committed to human rights.”
It was sunset when our interview came to an end. An autumn sunset, melancholic as usual. I could still hear the voices of children from the yard. Sometimes, in a sunset's blinding light, things can't be seen properly. In Shirin's office, you can see many images of Lady Justice; a bronze statue, a plaster statue, and illustrations on book covers laying around Shirin's big, disordered library. But I don't know why all the scales were tilted. ………………..