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Iran turns up pressure on rights activists

Campaigners are often seen as a threat to national security and influenced by Western interests.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 2009

TARGET: Shirin Ebadi, who takes on sensitive legal cases in Tehran, has seen her center closed.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Tehran, Iran; and Istanbul, Turkey

The black and red graffiti painted outside the apartment and offices of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi on Jan. 1 has yet to be removed.

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She has left it up "so everyone will see it," says Ms. Ebadi, adding that the challenge "makes me stronger."

That choice probably suits the hostile crowd of militants who painted the messages while police watched – their handiwork part of a bid to unsettle Iran's best-known rights lawyer.

"Ebadi, death to the witch of America," reads the scrawl on the garage door, the word "witch" misspelled in Farsi. Nearby is another message: "Shame on the holder of the pen of the enemy."

That action, along with the closing of Ebadi's Center for Human Rights Defenders in late December, is the latest volley in a broader challenge by authorities against campaigners of all kinds, from labor leaders and journalists to students and women trying to redress discriminatory laws by gathering 1 million signatures.

For more than two years, Iranian security chiefs have stated that the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic is from inside Iran. Activists are often accused of endangering "national security," and in the pay of arch foes Israel or the US to foment a "Velvet Revolution" against the regime.

"The people who accuse me of working with the US know themselves that it is not right," says Ebadi in an interview, noting that she has received numerous threats to her life from hard-line critics.

But the lawyer has often been critical of the US, too, over abuses at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The tens of millions of dollars the US has set aside in recent years for "pro-democracy" activities have instead "damaged the human rights situation in Iran," says Ebadi, by giving authorities a pretext for suspicion.

"This will not lead me to leave Iran or to give up my work," says Ebadi. "What I am doing is based on the law, and they can't stop me…. A government that is powerful is more open to criticism. [This one] is scared."

Some analysts in Iran say the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reason to worry, given years of Washington talk about "regime change" in Iran. The seed cash for today's American "pro-democracy" money, in fact, was $18 million pushed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) in 1996 for a "covert CIA operation" aimed at toppling the government.

Home-grown activists

Iran detains journalist

Iran said Monday that Roxana Saberi, a freelance US journalist detained in Tehran, had been working "illegally" in Iran since her press card was revoked in 2006.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said that since then, "her mission in collecting news and information from Iran – has been completely illegal." During six years in Iran, the US-born Iranian-American worked for NPR, the BBC, and others. Despite the loss of her press card, NPR has reported that officials nonetheless "tolerated" low-profile work that she did from Iran.

Ms. Saberi's father, Reza, said over the weekend that he last heard from his daughter on Feb. 10. She told him she had been arrested 10 days earlier, but that she expected to be released in two to three days.