Iranian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate: Nothing Will Be the Same After the Protests

We look at the scope, scale and sustainability of the protests in Iran, which have entered their second month, after being sparked in September by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police. More than a thousand protesters have been arrested, while some children have been sent to reeducation camps. The United Nations said Tuesday at least 23 children have been killed in the demonstrations. We speak in depth with Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her legal work on behalf of women and children in Iran, and she has lived in exile since 2009. Unlike previous protest movements, such as the 2009 Green Movement, she says today’s protesters are demanding fundamental change to the country’s system of government. “For 43 years, people have bottled up all this anger. For 43 years, the regime has turned a deaf ear to the demands of the people, and anyone who said anything against the regime has either ended up in prison or killed or has fled the country,” says Ebadi.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Today we look at the scope, the scale, sustainability of the protests in Iran, which have entered their second month, after being sparked in September by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of Iran’s so-called morality police. More than a thousand protesters have been arrested. Some children have been sent to so-called reeducation camps. The United Nations said Tuesday at least 23 children have been killed in the protests, one aged 11 years old. The Guardian reports another schoolgirl was killed by Iranian police after she was beaten when she refused to sing a pro-regime song during a raid on her school.

Meanwhile, dozens rallied at Tehran’s international airport Wednesday evening, where they cheered the return of Elnaz Rekabi, a female rock climber who drew international headlines when she joined a competition in South Korea without wearing a headscarf. On Sunday, the 33-year-old climber wore her hair in a ponytail, covered partially by a headband — in violation of Iran’s strict dress code — during a climb at the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asian Championships in Seoul. There were conflicting reports in the Iranian media about whether Rekabi will now face arrest. She said in an interview with a state-run news agency Wednesday evening that she had unintentionally forgotten to put on her hijab.

ELNAZ REKABI: [translated] The struggle that I had with wearing my shoes and preparing my gear made me forget about the proper hijab that I should have had, and I went to the wall and ascended.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as a massive fire engulfed parts of Tehran’s infamous Evin prison Saturday, killing at least eight people, injuring dozens more. Witnesses reported hearing explosions and gunfire coming from the prison, known for holding political prisoners.

Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke about all of this and more in an in-depth interview with the Iranian activist and lawyer Dr. Shirin Ebadi, once held at the Evin prison. Shirin Ebadi was the first female judge in Iran. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, all female judges were dismissed. In 1999, she was imprisoned for nearly a month for her work defending prisoners of conscience. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win the award. She used the prize money to set up the Defenders of Human Rights Center. She worked as a human rights lawyer in Iran for decades, focusing in particular on the rights of women, children and political prisoners. She has lived in exile since 2009. Dr. Ebadi joined us from London Wednesday. I began by asking her about the protests.

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] The scale of these recent protests are so wide, even schoolchildren have joined the line of protesters. Even schoolchildren do not want to accept the educational system in Iran. The scale of the protests, the recent ones, of course, go much, much further and wider than the previous ones.

And the main difference between these protests and the previous ones is that in the previous protests the people used to congregate in various places around cities and towns and chant slogans, but now they’ve become wiser, the protesters. They make sure that their protests are all over the country, in various areas, and sporadic. And so it makes it very difficult for anti-riot forces to be present in every corner of the country.

And it’s very regrettable that in order to crack down on these protesters, the regime is even trying to persuade children by giving them money to go and join the government forces and stand against the protesters. And meanwhile, many protesters have been arrested, including schoolchildren, and one of the schoolchildren was killed when the school was raided. And also, the regime is exploiting orphans in the country, and it’s turning them more or less into child soldiers for the regime.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Ebadi, could you elaborate on that? What do you mean that the regime is turning children into child soldiers?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Look, the Iranian government is a signatory to the Convention for the Rights of the Child. And as you know, that convention says it is forbidden to use children in wars, in conflicts. But the Iranian government used these children as child soldiers in the Iran-Iraq War, if you remember, and even now it’s using some children for the same purpose.

And the situation of children in Iran is absolutely dire. Children under the age of 18 are executed. And it’s one of the very few countries in the world where there is still death penalty for young people under the age of 18. And they also constantly arrest and imprison juveniles.

And when you look at the footage from the protests, you actually can actually see these children who are clearly under the age of 18. And it’s very clear that they either pay these children or they try every way possible to persuade these children to join them, because they don’t have enough soldiers in their anti-riot force.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Ebadi, could you also explain how the changing demographics in the country have altered in the years since the revolution? Half of the population of Iran was born now after the ’79 Revolution, and so have known no other government than the governments that came into power following that. And also the literacy rates among women, the way that they’ve increased exponentially since the revolution — prior to ’79, women’s literacy was below 30%, and now it’s over 80%. More than half of students at universities are now women. How does this figure into the protests happening today and the fact that we see, as you were talking about earlier, so many young people participating, and that these protests are really being led by women, young women?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Yes, absolutely. Over 50% of students in our universities are female. And likewise, many of our professors at university are female. We have highly educated women in the country. And it’s natural that educated women are aware. They’re aware of their rights. And they cannot tolerate the discrimination they are being subjected to, and they have been subjected to since the 1979 Revolution. And it is for that very reason that in every protest — and I’m not just talking about the recent protests, but in every protest we’ve had since the revolution — it’s the women who have been at the forefront.

And I would like to elaborate and give you a few examples of some of the laws that were adopted after the 1979 Revolution, so you can understand why women are protesting. In addition to enforced hijab in Iran, based on law in Iran, the life of a woman is only considered worth half of that a man. For instance, if my brother and I are in a car crash, and the damage a court of law awards to my brother is twice as much as that awarded to me. And also, the testimony of two women in Iran is tantamount to the testimony of one man in a court of law. Or, if a married woman wants to travel, she will not be allowed to do so without the written permission of her husband. And we have so many discriminatory laws against women. So, it’s very natural that such educated women will not put up with such discriminatory laws, all of which, I repeat, were adopted after the 1979 Revolution. That is why the disenchantment is chiefly among women.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ebadi, there was a fire that broke out at the notorious Evin prison this weekend. At least eight people died. This is a place where political prisoners have been held for years. I believe you yourself was held there. But you certainly represented prisoners who have been held there. Can you talk about what you understand happened and the significance of this prison?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] The precise reason for the fire is still not clear. According to the government, the prisoners had started the fire. However, the conditions in the prison are not such to allow prisoners to do such a thing. There is — they have a room where they do needlework, and they claimed that the fire started there. Usually at 5:00, they close the needlework factory, and so they would not have been — and they said the fire started there. So, how could the fire have started there, when the door was shut at 5 p.m. as it is every day?

Also, the first report that was broadcast on state media after this incident was that the eight people killed were trying to escape prison. And as they were trying to escape, they stepped on mines that we have around the prison. So, what you heard was not the sound of bullets; it was the sound of explosions resulting from the mines they have stepped on. And it’s really tragic to hear that, because the government, in a way, is admitting that inside the city, inside a prison, they have planted mines. And this is a serious offense, and the Iranian government should be made answerable. They are not allowed to put mines anywhere.

So, the real reason is still not clear, nor is the number of those killed so far. However, there are a number of prisoners that no one has heard from since. And no one has been able to contact them or have meetings with them. We have heard that the women’s ward for political prisoners, they are OK, and nothing has happened to them. However, in the men’s section, there are some prisoners, political prisoners, we have not heard from, and we are extremely worried about them. We don’t know whether they’ve been killed, whether they’re injured; if they’re injured, which hospital they’re in. Why do we not know what has happened to them?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Ebadi, you yourself were imprisoned at Evin, as was your husband. When exactly was that? And could you talk about what the conditions in the prison were, and if and whether — whether and how conditions in the prison changed over the years, as you continued to represent people detained there?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] It was about 1999 when I was imprisoned in Evin. And while I was there, I was put in solitary confinement. And solitary confinement is a very, very small, narrow room without a bed or chair. And they just gave us a dirty blanket, and not a pillow or anything to sleep on. So we had to — I had to sleep on the floor without a pillow. And as a result, I have had health problems since. They take everything away from us. They took my watch and even my reading glasses. And we are completely isolated in solitary confinement. We have no opportunity to speak to anybody, including our lawyers. And I can say the situation has not changed. It’s still the same.

And all those who are prisoners of conscience, when arrested, they have to experience solitary confinement for a while, because in solitary confinement they can put psychological pressure on the prisoner and make them confess, make false confessions. And unfortunately, these prisoners are subjected to the most gruesome tortures in all Iran’s prisons, including Evin. And I’m sure you’re aware that several prisoners died under torture, including a young worker who was a blogger. And his name was Sattar Beheshti. And a few years ago, he died. He was under torture. And unfortunately, every year we have one or two political prisoners who die under torture. We have figures for all that.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ebadi, do you think President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear accord further radicalized the regime there by isolating it further with increased sanctions? And I’m wondering what you think the U.S. policy should be today?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] I am going to answer your question in this way, that before — Iran was not under any sanctions for three years after the signing of JCPOA, before Trump pulled out of JCPOA. And in the three years that there were no sanctions on Iran, there were no improvements in Iranian people’s welfare situation. So, it makes no difference for the Iranian people’s welfare and economic situations whether the United States is a party to JCPOA or not, or whether or not there have been sanctions on Iran.

However, if they do lift sanctions against Iran, be sure that Iran does not spend any of its money on the people. What does it spend the money on? It spends it on Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Houthis in Yemen or Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. And more recently, it’s been helping Russia to kill the Ukrainian people, unfortunately. The Iranian people’s welfare and well-being means nothing to the Islamic Republic’s regime.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Ebadi, on Evin prison, one of the people who has been held there now for years is someone you worked very closely with, the Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. She was also your lawyer for a time. Could you talk about what you know of her situation today? She’s been — she was previously awarded both the Right Livelihood Award as well as the Sakharov Prize. She was initially imprisoned for 38 years, but her sentence has reportedly been reduced.

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human rights lawyer, and she is a colleague of mine. And she ends up in prison. And she’s been meted out a long prison sentence for defending human rights prisoners. She’s been ill in prison. And fortunately, thanks to the doctors, they have allowed her to come on leave to receive some treatment.

Working for human rights and defending the rights of people in Iranian courts is considered a crime these days. The human rights lawyers who end up in prison are charged with allegations such as: “You must be against the government; otherwise, you wouldn’t be defending people who are anti-government.” And I have said on many occasions, “Look, if we are defending a thief, does it mean that we are complicit in the act of theft? So, why do you arrest a lawyer who is defending human rights activists and accuse him of being complicit with such people, with the opposition?”

That is why many political activists, whether they’re lawyers or nonlawyers, they end up in prison. I have to remind you, we have very well-known film directors in prison. We have very well-known authors in prison. And the situation in Iran is that anyone who says a word against the government, or makes a documentary or a film about the government, or writes anything against the government, will, without doubt, end up behind bars.

AMY GOODMAN: Iranian activist and lawyer, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, speaking to us from London. When we come back, we continue our conversation, ask her about the Iranian president, Raisi, the protesters’ demands for regime change, and about the violence of security forces throughout the country, including Iran’s Kurdistan region, which was where 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was from. She was killed by Iranian so-called morality police in Tehran last month, sparking nationwide protests. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Come My Habibi” by the band Habibi. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We continue our conversation with the Iranian activist, the lawyer, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr. Shirin Ebadi. She writes in her book, Until We Are Free, quote, “I received the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2003 for my efforts for democracy and human rights, and though you would think that this would have propelled my work in Iran and won me some grudging respect, it put me under even more pressure and scrutiny by the government. The Iranian state did everything it could to suppress the news of my award, forbidding the state radio and TV stations to so much as mention it and putting me under an even more severe news embargo. When a reporter asked President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who was in power at the time, why he had not congratulated me, he responded, ‘This isn’t such an important prize. It’s only the Nobel in literature that really matters,’” he said.

That’s Dr. Shirin Ebadi. She worked as a human rights lawyer in Iran for decades, was the first female judge in Iran. She has lived in exile since 2009. Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke with her on Wednesday.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Ebadi, just to go back to what you were saying about the protests, that these are different from all the protests that erupted in Iran — that have erupted over the course of the last more than 40 years since the revolution, could you explain? I mean, the one that received an enormous amount of coverage here was the 2009 Green Movement, when also millions of people turned out on the streets. The protests lasted for seven months. And even then, the regime response, the government response, was quite brutal. How do you see this protest as different from that one? And do you think this will endure, given how brutal and violent the government response has been?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Look, in the previous protests, such as the one in 2009, people had specific demand. In 2009, they were protesting against a rigged election. They were saying, “What happened to my vote?” But now the demand is different, and the demand is a political one. They want regime change. And they have all taken to the streets, and they are all chanting, “We want regime change.” This is one of the fundamental differences between these protests and the previous ones.

And the people are resisting a lot better than before, of course. The prisons are full. Many have been killed. Many have been injured. And because the prisons are overcrowded, the regime is even using sports stadium as prisons.

I somehow doubt very much that the government will again be able to repress the people. I think the people will succeed. As I said, even schoolchildren can no longer tolerate this. They have refused to go to their classes, and they have taken to the streets. And you see generations next to each other. You see children, parents, grandparents protesting together on the streets. And even let’s assume that the government manages to repress the people by intensifying their crackdown. I promise you that in very, very short time there will be yet another protest in Iran. In fact, Iran, it is like a powder keg about to explode. They may be able to try and — it’s a fire. It’s a fire that is about to become bigger and bigger. So, there is nothing the government can do.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ebadi, if you can talk about the marginalized regions — for example, the violence of security forces in Iran’s Kurdistan? Mahsa Amini, the young woman who was the flashpoint in these protests, was 22 years old, an Iranian Kurdish woman from Kurdistan, though she was killed in Tehran. And also, the systemic killing of Balochi protesters, what is the status of the Balochi minority? The Balochi are mostly Sunni, in a majority-Shia state.

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Unfortunately, the minorities in Iran are subjected to extreme discrimination. When you look at the people on death row in Iran, you will see that 95% of those on death row are from minorities in Iran. The government represses them more than others. Mahsa Amini, in her birth certificate, she wanted to — her parents wanted to call her Zhina, which is a Kurdish name, but the government did not allow that, because, they said, “You’re not allowed to choose a Kurdish name; you have to choose a Farsi or Persian name for your child.” And this is real oppression against a minority group.

Mahsa was a young girl. She had come to Tehran just as a tourist and also to visit a few of her relatives. And she was on the street with her brother when the morality police, under the pretext that her headscarf wasn’t covering the whole head, arrested her, and they took her to a detention center. And unfortunately, a few hours later, an ambulance left that detention center which was carrying the corpse of Mahsa. And the doctors in the hospital said that when Mahsa arrived in the hospital, she had suffered from concussion, and there was nothing we could do about it. And the pictures that they took of Mahsa in hospital, when you can see her with the drips and serums attached to her, you can see clearly that there is blood coming out of her ears in those pictures, which is a clear sign that she was concussed. And she was clearly in — you know, she had fallen into coma and started bleeding. But since this government never tells the truth, they said that she had — she was already sick, she had underlying diseases, and she had died from there. And that made the people even angrier.

Now, in Zahedan, a commander of police force raped a 15-year-old girl. And they took the case to court, and it didn’t get anywhere, so the people became very angry. So, the people of Zahedan, especially the young people, they decided to take to the streets after the Friday prayers and chant against that commander who had raped this young girl. And the Friday prayers had just ended in Zahedan, that some 20 to 30 Balochi youth started chanting against the whole regime, that is a not — that is ignoring justice and is not bringing this commander to book. But since the police knew this was going to happen, they were ready for the protesters, and they started gunning down the protesters. Even those who had just left the mosque and weren’t part of the protest, many of them were also killed. The number of those killed so far, as far as we know, over 95 have been killed. And these are the ones we know, because we have their names and we have their identity papers. And many have been injured and are still in hospital, and we are still waiting to see whether they will recover or whether they will die in hospital.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Ebadi, you mentioned earlier that the protesters are calling for a change in the regime. How do you understand what that means? Your response, for instance, to the present head of state, Ebrahim Raisi, whom Amnesty International has said there is credible evidence of his involvement in crimes against humanity? If you could talk about his record and whether you think the repression that his administration has carried out has something to do with the force of these protests?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Of course, there is no doubt that Raisi, in the ’80s, played a big part in the killing of political prisoners. There is no doubt about that. However, to say that the protests this time are even more powerful than before, it’s not just because of Raisi. It is because of the anger that is boiling over. And for 43 years, people have bottled up all this anger. And for 43 years, the regime has turned a deaf ear to the demands of the people. And anyone who has said anything against the regime has either ended up in prison or killed or has fled the country. There’s been a huge brain drain, and we have lost many educated people. They didn’t want to leave Iran, but they had to. So, it’s a collection of all these issues that has led to these recent protests and where people are calling for regime change.

And allow me to add that what the people want is a democratic and a secular government. That’s what they want, because for 43 years they have suffered a theocracy, and they know what a theocracy is like. They no longer want to tolerate a theocracy. They want a democracy, and they want secularism.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, could you talk about the fate of precisely the supreme leader, Khamenei, who is reportedly very ill but is grooming his son to be his successor? Could you explain the significance of that, the role that the supreme leader plays, and what impact these protests might have?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] Khamenei has been reported ill for a very, very long time, yet we still see him giving speeches. And as always, he’s describing all these protests to the enemies. If Khamenei dies, I cannot imagine that we will have another supreme jurisconsult, or vali-ye faqih, because the situation in Iran is far worse than ever, and they will not allow any other cleric to take over and continue this despotic theocracy.

One of the chants that you hear is — that some of the slogans chanted these days are against Mojtaba Khamenei, who is the son of Khamenei. So the people are chanting anti-Mojtaba Khamenei slogans to ensure that he doesn’t take over. But I really don’t think that if Khamenei dies, there will be any successor.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you exactly see, Dr. Ebadi, this uprising playing out?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] It’s still too early to predict what these protests are going to lead to, but one thing I can tell you for sure: Nothing will ever be the same in Iran after these protests, because the situation has already changed a lot since before the protests. But as to how the future will be, it is still premature to make any predictions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And finally, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, what do you hope will come out of these protests?

SHIRIN EBADI: [translated] My hope is the victory of the people. My hope is that we have a — they stage a referendum under the auspices of the United Nations so that the people freely choose the government they want and their representatives. This is my wish for the people of Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Iranian activist and lawyer Dr. Shirin Ebadi. She was the first female judge in Iran, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She was speaking to us from London.

And this breaking news: The British Prime Minister Liz Truss is resigning. She is the shortest-serving prime minister in U.K. history. The move comes less than a week after Truss fired her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. She sought to blame him for the recent Tory budget, which slashed taxes and caused the pound to plummet. This comes as the U.K. is facing record inflation and a surging cost of living, which have spurred mass protests. The Daily Star had a live-stream called “Can Liz Truss outlast a lettuce?” After just 45 days, the lettuce has won.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a video news production fellow and a people and culture manager. Learn more and apply at democracynow.org.

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Tune in tomorrow on Democracy Now! We’ll be going to Britain for the latest, and we’ll also be talking about other issues. I’m Amy Goodman.