The Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi has interpreted the harsh sentences imposed by the Iranian government on fellow lawyers in Iran as a “sign of fear” on behalf of the regime.
That may well be so, although I don’t think that Iran’s rulers have much to fear domestically after the protests of 2009 have fizzled out. And if this brutal regime will ever be brought down, it certainly won’t happen in courtrooms. The role of lawyers in dictatorships is limited to being tolerated in order to maintain an illusion of some resemblance of a legal system, while the judiciary is in fact just another tool of state power and oppression. (When I was interned at Evin prison in Tehran in summer of 2009 and charged with “conspiracy against the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, I didn’t get to see a lawyer for the whole week of my detention.)
Fear does play a role though. But possibly more so on Ms Ebadi’s part: When millions of Iranians took to the streets in summer of 2009 to protest against the rigged elections and for political reforms, Ms Ebadi preferred to remain in her exile in London. She, the only Iranian to ever win a Nobel Prize, did not consider it worthwhile to put her personal support behind the protests that were sweeping Iran at that time.
Would it have been dangerous for her to return to Iran? Possibly. But it was also dangerous for anyone else in Iran who took to the streets for protests. Millions had that courage. The Nobel laureate did not. But her presence would have led to even more international attention. Even for a brutal regime, there is a difference between shooting and killing student protesters and arresting hundreds on the one hand, and arresting or even harming the only Nobel laureate the country has ever had on the other hand. – Having seen thousands who took that risk without any of the protection that such fame and publicity bestow, and having taken that risk myself, I respectfully suggest that it would have been worthwhile for Ms Ebadi to step forward at that crucial time.
But even in her chosen exile in London, Ms Ebadi has been painfully invisible: I have helped to organise a few events against the institutions of the Iranian government here in London, and I have participated in and attended many more. Ms Ebadi never showed up. – This a criticism that can be extended to many Iranians living in exile; but then most of these at least don’t pretend to be human rights activists.
Returning to the subject of fear, Ms Ebadi is quoted as saying: “Any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from birth to death, but I have learned to overcome my fear.” – It must be terribly fearsome to have to live in London and enjoy personal and political freedom, while in Iran thousands haven been imprisoned for political dissent and 47 prisoners were executed in the first 2 weeks of 2011 alone.
The Nobel Prize comes with an award of 10 million Swedish Krona.