Fisher Guest Editorial: US Squelches Shirin Ebadi
RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND
By William Fisher
Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe performs a genuine public service by calling our attention to yet another screw-up in America’s war against the Axis of Evil.
This one can only make us wonder if the government’s right hand knows what its left hand is doing.
Ms. Goodman points out that Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian dissident who is the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, “is being prevented from publishing her memoirs in the United States because of regulations that prohibit ‘trading with the enemy’.” Her book is an effort to “help correct Western stereotypes of Islam, especially the image of Muslim women as docile, forlorn creatures.”
But at the same time, the US State Department – which is allegedly in charge of ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of people who live under repressive, authoritarian regimes — posts on its website a Fact Sheet entitled, “Iran: Voices Struggling To Be Heard.”
And prominent among these ‘Voices’ is – you guessed it — Shirin Ebadi, who is described as one of Iran’s ‘Voices of Hope’.
It says of her: Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her life-long campaign to protect vulnerable and persecuted groups within Iranian society.” And it quotes the citation from the Norwegian Nobel Committee: “As a lawyer, judge, lecturer, writer and activist, she has spoken out clearly and strongly in her country, Iran and far beyond.”
The State Department goes on to explain, “Since being forced from her position as the president of the city court of Tehran, she has used her legal expertise to promote and protect some of the most basic and necessary human rights…. she has provided legal representation to many activists who are the targets of government harassment because of dissident opinions and democracy promotion. She has courageously fought for equitable and just treatment for women in Iranian society, and she has also helped to organize efforts to publicize and alleviate the harsh conditions of ‘street children’ in Iran.”
The State Department then reminds us that in 2000 Ms. Ebadi “was arrested and accused of distributing a videotape that implicated prominent hard-line leaders of instigating attacks against advocates of reform. She received a suspended sentence and a professional ban. She was then detained after attending a conference in Berlin on the Iranian reform movement.”
It says she also provided legal representation for “highly politicized and sensitive cases” such as the students killed during the 1999 Tehran University protests by vigilante groups operating under the influence of hard-line clerics, and two prominent political activists who were stabbed to death in 1998 by “rogue” elements within the Intelligence Ministry.
Even President Bush lauds Ms. Ebadi. In Iran, he says, “the demand for democracy is strong and broad as we saw when thousands gathered to welcome home Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The regime in Tehran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people, or lose its last claim to legitimacy.”
Ms. Ebadi herself says, “Any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from birth to death, but I have learned to overcome my fear.”
But can she overcome US government bureaucracy? The problem with publishing her book in the US, Ms. Goodman writes, is a 1917 law that “allows the president to bar transactions during times of war or national emergency.” The law has been amended to exempt publishers, but the Treasury Department has ruled it illegal “to enhance the value of anything created in Iran without permission” — including books.
Moreover, as Ms. Goodman points out, if Ms. Ebadi’s literary agent were to help prepare the manuscript for an American audience, she too would be subject to punishment — 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for an individual or $1 million for a publishing house.
The Treasury Department suggests that Ms. Ebadi apply for a special license. But, as Ellen Goodman points out, “no American needs a license to publish a book. Neither this free-speech lawyer nor her supporters are going to ask the government for permission.”
Instead, Ms. Ebadi and her agent are suing the Treasury Department. Which obviously hasn’t yet told the State Department.
Publication of the Ebadi book in the US would be perfectly OK with Treasury if the book were already published in Iran. But the Catch-22 here is that the ayatollahs have already foreclosed this option.
And now an anachronistic US law is having the same effect.
When Ms. Ebadi received her Nobel Prize, Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, said, “The Nobel Committee has sent a powerful message to the Iranian Government that serious human rights violations must end. We hope they hear that message.”
We hope the US government hears it first.
About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy administration.