When Iranian Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work as a lawyer and human-rights activist, the regime in Tehran faced a dilemma. The award infuriated the country's hard-liners, but the regime privately acknowledged that it had also earned Ebadi the admiration of most Iranians. Reluctant to arrest or openly target such a popular figure, the government tolerated Ebadi's activities and limited itself to low-level harassment of her legal office.
That tacit policy has now changed. As part of an intensifying campaign to silence Iran's opposition, authorities in Tehran last week confiscated Ebadi's Nobel medal from a safety deposit box and froze her bank account, according to Ebadi and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, which protested on behalf of the Nobel Committee in Oslo. A spokesman for the Iranian government denied that the medal was seized and said Ebadi's assets were frozen due to her failure to pay taxes.
Last week's moves, part of a broad effort to quell dissent following June's disputed election, also included a reported assault on Ebadi's husband and other threats against close relatives. "In the past, there were red lines people believed the regime would never cross, but no red lines really exist anymore," says Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "What is to be gained from confiscating Shirin Ebadi's Nobel Prize or assaulting her husband? It's almost as if Iran is trying to parody a gratuitously cruel, dictatorial regime."
Ebadi left Iran shortly before June's contested election and has yet to return. Though she demanded that the results be annulled, her comments in the immediate aftermath of mass protest rallies were measured. She has not aligned herself with the opposition movement's leaders and has been careful not to insert herself into the most significant schism in the regime since the 1979 revolution. Many Iranians eager for a respected leader to head a broad-based opposition have faulted Ebadi's reticence.
Which is why the government's recent crackdown on Ebadi has many Iran experts so perplexed. Most believe that Ebadi's role in Iran's domestic scene doesn't warrant Tehran's making a spectacle. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has effectively sidelined Ebadi from public life since 2005. By censoring newspapers that once carried her articles, blocking news websites that reported on her work and creating a climate of intimidation in which Ebadi would scarcely risk making a public address in Iran, the government had succeeded in reducing her voice to a rare whisper most often heard from abroad.
But Iran's human-rights violations have not gone unreported. In the past few years, the rise of muckraking independent news outlets and news websites has emerged to spread the word on official abuses. Iran has changed dramatically since the mid-1990s, when Ebadi functioned as almost the sole conduit for news of abuses. In that era, families of abuse victims often went to Ebadi first. She brought prominence to their cases by taking them to trial and speaking to journalists who in turn covered the proceedings. If the world learned about the cases of rape and extrajudicial killings that made Iran's human-rights record so notorious, it was because Ebadi disclosed them by going before the judiciary.
In the past couple of months, the severe restrictions on reporting that have accompanied the government's post-election crackdown have again turned Ebadi into a key source of information on mass detentions and prison abuse. The journalists who would ordinarily report on such violations for the Iranian and Western media have largely been banned from reporting or intimidated into leaving the country. In such an environment, Ebadi's voice was newly critical. In early November, she urged the international community to support a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Iran for human-rights abuses. Though the U.N. has passed similar resolutions each year for more than two decades, November's resolution showcased the brutal government repression of election protests and passed by the largest margin for such a resolution on Iran ever.
The government's focus on Ebadi seems to be designed to hit her before she regains too much power as the thorniest critic in the government's side. But the seizure of her Nobel medal and the threats against her family seem poorly calculated. "The irony of all this is that such policies give Ms. Ebadi more prominence," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. "In effect they make her harassment itself the human-rights message that they are trying so hard to prevent her from expressing."