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Politics

The Islamic Republic’s Revenge against Iran’s First Nobel Prize Winner

October 9, 2023
Solmaz Eikdar
6 min read
When Shirin Ebadi returned to Iran with her Nobel Peace Prize on the evening of October 15, 2003, she was welcomed by supporters who were chanting “Iran for ALL Iranians”
When Shirin Ebadi returned to Iran with her Nobel Peace Prize on the evening of October 15, 2003, she was welcomed by supporters who were chanting “Iran for ALL Iranians”
Graffiti accusing Shirin Ebadi of being an American agent after she won the Nobel Peace Prize
Graffiti accusing Shirin Ebadi of being an American agent after she won the Nobel Peace Prize
“The Nobel Peace Prize is not important,” said then President Mohammad Khatami after Shirin Ebadi won the award
“The Nobel Peace Prize is not important,” said then President Mohammad Khatami after Shirin Ebadi won the award
“Against the Nation, For Nobel:” It’s Narges Mohammadi’s turn to be targeted by Iranian media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Republic
“Against the Nation, For Nobel:” It’s Narges Mohammadi’s turn to be targeted by Iranian media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Republic
“Nobel for Obscenity:” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was among government officials who dismissed the importance of the Nobel Peace Prize after it was awarded to Narges Mohammadi
“Nobel for Obscenity:” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was among government officials who dismissed the importance of the Nobel Peace Prize after it was awarded to Narges Mohammadi
“Criminals’ Prize” is how a pro-regime newspaper characterized the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Narges Mohammadi
“Criminals’ Prize” is how a pro-regime newspaper characterized the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Narges Mohammadi

The Islamic Republic government rules a country where two of its women, both defenders of human rights, have now won the Nobel Peace Prize. Before Narges Mohammadi, who is now incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison, Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer and children rights activist, received this prize in 2003. Since then, the Islamic Republic has done everything it could to take revenge against her.

***

Twenty years ago, Iran’s battered civil society was given a jolt of hope: Shirin Ebadi, a woman, a lawyer and a human rights activist, became the first Iranian to win the most prestigious “peace” award in the world. When on the evening of October 15, 2003, Ebadi returned to Iran with her Nobel Peace Prize, she was welcomed by hopeful citizens who were chanting “Iran for ALL Iranians.”

The reactions of the Islamic Republic’s officials to this prize, however, were not a promise of better days ahead. President Mohammad Khatami who, at that time, was popular among young and progressive Iranians, had this to say about the event: “The Nobel Peace Prize is not important; its literature and science award are more important.”

Khatami’s and other officials’ dismissive shrug was, in fact, a warning about future actions against Iran’s first Nobel Laureate.

The Vengeance Starts

At the time, it was assumed that the Nobel Peace Prize would provide some degree of protection for this world-renowned lawyer who had been repeatedly harassed for accepting to represent plaintiffs in cases such as the Chain Murders of dissidents and the 1999 attack on a university dormitory in Tehran. But the Islamic Republic was determined to take revenge against her.

Immediately after receiving the Nobel prize, the authorities increased their pressure on Shirin Ebadi, but this harassment reached new heights after the disputed 2009 presidential election.

In 2009, Ebadi used a speech in Spain to tell the world about the violent and widespread violations of human rights against the Green Movement protests sparked by a disputed presidential election. In her book Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran, Ebadi cites an example of warnings she received at the time: “Very soon, the government summoned two of my colleagues for interrogation and sent me a message through them: ‘Tell Ebadi to remain silent and we would leave her alone. When things cool down, we’ll allow her to [re-]open the office for the [Defenders of Human Rights] Center.’”

Ebadi’s refusal to heed this warning resulted in pressures on her husband Javad Tavassolian. For some days in the late summer of 2009, Ebadi could not reach her husband on the phone and her sister in Iran could not find out what had happened to him.

After a few days, her husband called Ebadi and said that agents of the Intelligence Ministry had filed “moral” charges against him and they had flogged him as punishment for drinking alcohol immediately after they had arrested him.

Three days after the arrest of Ebadi’s husband, he was sentenced to death by stoning on the charge of “adultery.” Then Tavassolian’s handler, a man by the name of Mahmoudi, told him that the only way to escape execution was to read a text in front of a camera that portrayed Ebadi as a foreign agent and her Nobel prize as a tool for bringing down the Islamic Republic.

Tavassolian, who became a broken-down man after his arrest, interrogations, trial and imprisonment, accepted the ultimatum, and an appeals court replaced the death sentence with a fine of 100,000 tomans.

The forced confessions of Javad Tavassolian was finally aired on state-run TV on June 11, 2010, the day before the first anniversary of the disputed 2009 presidential election. In the “interview,” he accused his wife of "carrying out orders from abroad" and of having played a role in organizing the post-election demonstrations. Repeating what the interrogators had told him to say, he even accused his wife of not respecting “human rights” at home during their long marriage: “In our home, she did not even respect the human rights of four people. Once she broke my glasses and at another time she tore my shirt. She attacked and beat me.”

The program ended with Tavassolian announcing that he wanted to separate from Ebadi unless she returned to Iran and expressed remorse for her actions. The couple had married in 1975 but agreed to a divorce to save Tavassolian.

In December 2009, Dr. Nooshin Ebadi, Shirin Ebadi’s sister, was kept in custody for 17 days during which she was pressured to sever her relations with the activist; otherwise, she was told she would be dismissed from her university job.

Earlier, in 2008, when around 100 guests were to gather for a ceremony at the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the building was locked down by government agents. But they did not stop here: They raided Ebadi’s office and confiscated computers as well as confidential papers relating to her legal work. Then, in December 2008, a group of plainclothes agents attacked Ebadi’s office and home with stones, chanting “Execute Her!”

Confiscation of Properties

Five years after Ebadi received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Islamic Republic government went after her finances and properties.

The government claimed Ebadi owed taxes on the $1.3 million Nobel prize money and fees she had been paid for her speeches in other countries.

Ebadi used the Nobel Peace Prize money to found the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the Society to Protect the Rights of the Child and the Mine Clearing Collaboration Association.

The government claimed that Ebadi must pay a tax of 330 million tomans, but her lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, told Radio Farda at the time that, according to Iranian law, she was exempt from paying taxes on her cash prize. According to Sotoudeh, the prize came from a non-profit organization and the prizes awarded by the Nobel Foundation must be considered scientific prizes; therefore, they are exempt from taxation.

The government confiscated and sold two properties belonging to Ebadi after the Ministry of Science announced that the Nobel Peace Prize is not a scientific prize. And, even though she was no longer living in Iran, she was banned from leaving the country if she returned because she had refused to pay her taxes. The government also confiscated her Nobel Peace Prize and other awards she had received from her bank box.

This series of harassment, of course, forced Ebadi to remain in exile, and Iranians lost one of their most effective lawyers and human rights activists.

Now, after 20 years, another Iranian woman and human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi, won the same prize and the reactions of the Islamic Republic’s officials to this event are similar to those following Ebadi’s awarding.

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the current foreign minister, was one of the first government officials to dismiss the importance of Mohammadi’s peace prize. “The presence of tens of millions of people in the funeral of martyr Ghasem Soleimani [the commander of the expeditionary Quds Force who was assassinated in a US drone strike in 2020] in Iran and Iraq and the sympathy of the world was the most magnificent and lasting peace prize in history,” he said.

Meanwhile, media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Republic published articles against the Nobel Peace Prize and Mohammadi.

These reactions must be seen as warnings that the Islamic Republic is going to treat Mohammadi the same way it treated Ebadi, with a notable difference: Mohammadi is already their captive in Evin Prison.

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