Death threats, imprisonment and years of harassment have failed to silence one of the Iranian regime's most fearless critics. Iran has now set an inglorious precedent by confiscating the Nobel Peace medal of Shirin Ebadi, who in 2003 became the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to receive the prestigious award.
The human rights lawyer said her gold medal and accompanying diploma were taken from a bank safety box in Tehran about three weeks ago on the orders of Iran's Revolutionary Court and that her bank account had been frozen. "They seized my bank account and stopped my retirement pension and also my husband's bank account and pension," Dr Ebadi told BBC World Service radio in an interview in London. "My husband also had a deposit box in the bank and in that was my Nobel Prize and the medal of the Legion d'Honneur," she said, referring to France's top honour.
The move is a sign of the increasingly drastic steps the regime is taking to crush dissent in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election as president in June. Never in the prize's 108-year-old history have a country's authorities seized a laureate's medal. There is outrage in Oslo, where the Nobel Peace Committee is based. "Such an act leaves us feeling shock and disbelief," said Jonas Gahr Stoere, the Norwegian foreign minister.
Iran is demanding US$400,000 (Dh1.5 million) it claims it is owed on the $1.3m prize money that came with the Nobel award. But Dr Ebadi, 62, dismissed the claim. "The Iranian authorities are not telling the truth because according to our tax laws, there is no tax payable on the Nobel Prize," she said. "Assuming they are telling the truth and I have to pay tax on this prize, why have they confiscated and seized the box belonging to my husband?
"Besides, the order to seize our bank accounts should have come from the tax authorities and the order to seize the box came from the Revolutionary Court." Dr Ebadi said a ring given to her by the German Association of Journalists was also taken. A member of her Human Rights Defenders Centre, Mohammad Seifzadeh, said the moves were aimed a "pressuring Ebadi, so that she will be banned from leaving Iran under the pretext of tax evasion whenever she returns".
Dr Ebadi, 62, insists prizes like hers are exempt from tax under Iranian law. That, however, is the pretext Tehran is using to justify its action. Norway had no right to criticise Tehran for enforcing its tax laws, Iran's foreign ministry said yesterday. Dr Ebadi left Iran a day before Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election. She promptly urged the international community to reject the outcome and called for a new election monitored by the United Nations. She has since travelled widely, infuriating the regime by highlighting its human rights abuses in the election's aftermath. Dozens of protesters were killed by security forces in the biggest street demonstrations in the Islamic republic's 30-year history, and thousands more were arrested in the June unrest.
Dr Ebadi, who is petite and soft-spoken, insisted yesterday she would not be intimidated. "Iranian officials want to put pressure on me in this way but it is not working," she said, according to the website of Radio Farda, a Farsi-language service that broadcasts from Europe to Iran. "If the Islamic republic is angry about the publication of human rights reports, they would do better by improving the human rights situation."
She urged the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to visit Iran to see human rights abuses for himself. "No Iranian judges dare hear my complaint," she added. The Norwegian foreign ministry summoned Iran's charge d'affaires on Wednesday to protest about the confiscation of her award. It said her husband, Javad Tavassolian, who is still in Tehran, was badly beaten this autumn and his bank account and pension were frozen.
Dr Ebadi's human rights group has faced pressure since its offices were shut down in a police raid a year ago. Two of its members were jailed for several weeks after the June election and others have been forbidden to travel abroad. Dr Ebadi was hardly known outside Iran when she was the surprise winner of the prize six years ago. The Nobel committee awarded her for "her efforts for democracy and human rights", particularly for Iranian women and children, but made clear its aim was to boost democratic reform across the Muslim world. At home, however, she was already well-known for defending political dissidents in sensitive cases that most male lawyers would never dare touch. Had she been in Iran recently, there is little doubt she would have attempted to represent many of the more than 100 prominent pro-reform figures and activists who have been subjected to mass trials since August.
Many Iranians swelled with pride when her work was internationally recognised six years ago, but furious Iranian hardliners depicted her Nobel Prize as a western attempt to undermine the Islamic republic. Dr Ebadi was appointed Iran's first female judge in 1975, but was forced to resign after the Islamic Revolution four years later when the ruling ayatollahs deemed that women were too irrational and emotional to hold such posts.
She bristles at hardliners' claims that her work provides ammunition for the US. She is an expert in Islamic law, is religious, and has been critical of the West. When she collected her Nobel Peace Prize, she lambasted the US for ignoring UN resolutions in the Middle East while using them as a pretext for war in Iraq. In an interview in her book-lined office in central Tehran, Dr Ebadi told this reporter 10 years ago: "Any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear, but I have overcome my fear." Now, she vows to return to Iran, when the time is right. "When I believe my presence in Iran would be more useful I will return. And I don't think it will be too long before I do."