Defenders Under Threat
“They Arrest You First, Then They Come up with a Charge”: Shirin Ebadi Recounts Persecution for her Legal Work
Abdorrahman Boroumand Center
July 9, 2019
Ms. Shirin Ebadi, born in 1947, is a lawyer, former judge, writer, and one of the most prominent human rights defenders in Iran.
She received her law degree from the University of Tehran in 1969 and after completing a training period, started her career as a judge. She was among the first women judges in Iran and the first Iranian woman to serve as the president of a court. After the 1979 Revolution, as the new regime banned women from working as judges, Shirin Ebadi was forced to an administrative job in the judiciary. She decided to take an early retirement and start practicing law as an attorney as she found this situation unbearable. The Bar Association, however, denied her a license for years due to some of her writings. Ms. Ebadi was able to obtain her license to practice law in 1990-91.
During her career as a lawyer, Ebadi has taken on numerous human rights cases. Among her most important cases were the murders of Dariush Foruhar and Parvaneh Eskandari, victims of the political murders that came to be known as “the chain-murders”, the death of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian journalist who was arrested for taking pictures of Evin Prison and died in custody, and the case of the leaders of the Baha’i faith. Ms. Ebadi also took on cases related to women’s and children’s rights, including cases involving child abuse and through these cases raised public awareness about deficient and discriminatory laws in Iran. Her activities for the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran resulted in the intimidation, harassment, arrests, and persecution she recounts below.
The following statement is based on an interview Abdorrahman Boroumand Center conducted with Ebadi in August 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I was the attorney representing Ezzat Ebrahimnejad’s family, the young man who was killed in the attack on Kuye Daneshgah [Tehran University dormitory complex,] on July 9, 1999.
The reason I accepted this case was that I read an interview in an Iranian newspaper given by an old peasant in which he had said “the blood of my young son was wasted. He was killed at Kuye Daneshgah. I have a small house made of mud in my town and I’m willing to sell it to hire a lawyer to pursue my son’s case.”
I became very upset after reading that interview at how low we had gone that someone had to sell his house in a village to hire a lawyer. I called the editor-in-chief of the newspaper and said that I would represent him. The editor-in-chief said that, fortunately, two or three other people had made the same offer.
Two or three days later, that man and his daughter came to see me.
The reason they had chosen me over the other attorneys who had also offered to represent him was very simple. His daughter said: “My father has to go back to his farming. I’m here and I will follow up on the case. I did not want to hire a male lawyer because I’m a widow and I felt easier and more comfortable working with you.” That simple. I agreed to represent them. The poor people were from a peasant family and the only educated person among them was the young man that had been killed.
In any event, we started looking into the case. Both the police and plainclothes agents were accused of breaking the law in the attack on Kuye Daneshgah. There were others who had been injured in addition to the young man that was killed. Mr. Rahami, who was President Khatami’s deputy, had taken on the representation of the injured students, and I represented the murder victim.
We met once at the University to see what kind of information each of us had. I felt like Rahami was doing his own thing and wasn’t really interested in working with me. And since the cases were not tied together, we said well, so be it.
It was around that time that a young man came to my office. His father and his aunt [his father’s sister] had come to my office a couple of times before and had brought me a letter. In any event, after a couple of meetings, it was decided that he himself would show up. His name was Amir Farshad Ebrahimi.
He proceeded to tell me his life story. He said that he had joined the Bassij [paramilitary organization] when he was in high school and had continued to stay with them, but that he had gotten into some disagreements over various things. He said: “I was not willing to participate in their misdeeds and dirty work such as forced robbery in the street, and theft; so I objected to those actions. And what happened was that they threw me in jail. So I cut myself loose from them and now I’ve come here to tell the whole story and disclose everything about them.” “Well, what’s the story?” I asked. “I was at the University that day,” he said, “and Allahkaram [commander of the plainclothes forces involved in the dormitory attack] was there too. We took the people we arrested to a mosque and from there we took them to jail.” He had some information.
I said: “Are you willing to say all of this in court?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Are you willing to write it down and sign it so I can submit it to the court and the prosecutor’s office so it can be investigated?” He said yes. “Very well then,” I said.
Since I wasn’t really sure whether he had come there to entrap me and create problems or he was an actual witness to the things he claimed, I thought it would be a good idea to make a video as well. So he wrote his statement and signed it, and at the top of the page he wrote that he consented for the writing to be submitted to the court.
I said we would put the exact things he had said on record. And he taped it too. In addition to recounting the events of July 9, he was also talking about their own gang, saying that they had wanted to do a number of things, including attacking then-Interior Minister Abdollah Nuri, and Mohajerani [the Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister at the time] who were participating in government-organized demonstrations a few months earlier, but that their bodyguards had stopped them. He recounted that story as well, saying “it was us and we wanted to beat them up”. He had a number of other stories to tell.
I recorded all of that, with his consent, and I told him I would submit it to the responsible authorities. “That’s fine. You would be in the right to submit it to whomever and wherever you want to, and I stand by what I said,” he said. And I thought I had made sure to take all the necessary precautions. I copied the thing myself over the course of two days.
I gave one copy to Mr. Rahami, who was my colleague in that case, because the case of the injured students had already begun and was at the Military Prosecutor’s Office. Mr. Naghadi was Defendant Number One in that case: I’m talking about Commander Naghadi.
I gave the copy to Mr. Rahami, thinking that it might be of use to his case. I also gave a copy to Tajzadeh – he was Deputy Interior Minister for Political Affairs at the time – because Amir Ebrahimi had said that he was one of the targets that they wanted to murder; so I thought he should be made aware of the story, not just for my own sake, but also because he was Deputy Interior Minister for Political Affairs which meant that in effect, everything was under his control; and so it was necessary for him to have knowledge of the facts.
I set up a meeting with Mr. Rahami at the University, where I saw him and gave him the tape. I will never forget this: He said “I’m going to the National Security Council. We have a meeting this evening and I will take this tape there”. I said: “That’s great. Please take it there so that everyone can [see and] hear it.”
I did not hear a word from either one of them for some time and I thought to myself that they were pursuing and investigating the matter as a matter of course.
About a month later, there was all this noise about a video that had surfaced, that was being sold, that contained the confessions of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi and many other things, highly confidential secrets had been exposed. I began to worry about what had happened to the video tape.
Kayhan [newspaper] started its insults, saying things like “this scenario was set up with the cooperation and conspiracy of two disreputable and notorious lawyers,” etc., etc.
One day I received a summons to appear at the Investigating Judge’s Office. Actually, at that time, there were no Investigating Judge’s Offices, as they had been abolished; that is, that was the period where the institution of the Prosecutor’s Office had been shut down altogether; the courts did the investigating themselves as well as the judging. It was a summons from Criminal Court Branch 16. So I went. I was led to a separate room.
And what was interesting was that there were two people sitting there. One was a person who later became the head of the Association for the Defense of Victims of Violence, that is, Mr. Taheri. He was called Alireza there; that is, everyone knew him by the name Alireza, his first name.
Alireza was asking me questions. Another man was sitting there and controlled everything, watching everything. It seemed to me that they were from two separate governmental organs watching me.
I told them exactly what had transpired and admitted that it was I who had shot the video.
In the meantime, they had already arrested Amir Farshad.
Taheri said: “Didn’t you ever think that Amir Farshad had lied?” “Well, there was a possibility that he might have lied,” I responded, “that was why I gave the tape to the National Security Council and to Mr. Tajzadeh, so that it could be investigated and looked into. I’m neither a judge nor a security agent; that’s why I gave it to the officials so they could look into it.” “Who distributed this?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I responded, “you guys are the security agents, it’s your job to find out who distributed it. How is it my business?”
To make a long story short, we had one interrogation session. But later, Kayhan and Resalat newspapers and the rest continued to say things against us and about “the tape makers” every day. Our case had actually come to be known as “the tape makers case”. One morning, June 28, I was in the courts for a case, meeting with a client, and things of that nature. I then went back to my office. We had a meeting in the afternoon with several other attorneys. I checked the office answering machine and realized it was full. All the messages were asking “Shirin, where are you; Shirin, where are you?” They had called from various news agencies, from Radio France; my friends had called, etc., asking what was going on. So I asked myself, “What’s going on? Why is everybody worried about where I am?”
At that moment my cell phone rang. It was my sister, crying, and asking “Shirin, where are you? Why aren’t you answering?” I said: “I was at the courts. You know they take your cell phones away; I didn’t have my cell phone on me. I just came back. What’s going on? What’s wrong with everybody?”
She said: “Radio Payam announced at 11 AM that you had been arrested.” “I was at the courts at 11 AM; how could I have been arrested?” I said. “Why do you believe any nonsense you hear?”
That was around 3 PM. An hour later my friends started arriving because we had a meeting. It was around 4 or 4:30 when someone called and said he was Branch 16’s secretary and told me to go there immediately to answer some questions. “The court is closed now,” I said. “Yeah but we’re open,” he responded. “We have a meeting right now and I can’t make it. I will come there tomorrow,” I said. “Well, you’ve been served,” he said, and abruptly hung up the phone.
In any event, the secretary hung up the phone and I figured out that something was about to happen. I immediately asked my reporter friend: “What have you heard?” The reporter said: “Radio Payam announced that two lawyers had been arrested in the tape makers case, but didn’t name anyone. Were there other lawyers, other than you and Rahami?” “No,” I answered. “Well then that’s it. They said two lawyers had been arrested in the tape makers case,” the reporter repeated, “on June 28.” At that moment the office door bell rang, and it rang hard and continuously. “Who is it?” “Revolutionary Guards. We have an arrest warrant. Let’s go.”
“Fine,” I said. I told my spouse and my brother who were there to come along with me, and they did. I asked to go upstairs to get some things (my office and home are in the same building). So I went upstairs and packed a couple of articles of clothing, underwear, my blood pressure pills, toothbrush, and the like, in a bag, and we left.
They had both come on motorcycles. “Where is the car?” I asked. One of them said: “I don’t have one.” These guys hadn’t even driven a car to arrest me. I don’t know, were we supposed to run after them in the street?!
So I said: “There is a private taxi agency near us. We’ll take a cab.” So we did. My brother, my spouse, and I, sat in the back seat and one of the Guards sat in the front [passenger seat]. The other one followed us on his motorcycle.
He gave me the arrest warrant in the car. He said: “Take it and sign it.” “Fine,” I said, and asked him, “What is date today, brother?” He said: “It’s the 28th.” “So I should put the date on here, right?” I asked. “Yes.” “By the way, what time is it?” I asked (because he had told me it was better to write down the time), “I don’t have a watch, could you check please?” I did, of course, have a watch but I asked him if he could check and see what time it was. He looked at his watch and said: “It’s 7 o’clock.” So I wrote on the paper that the warrant was seen at 7 PM on June 28 signed it, and gave it back to him. “Is this good?” I asked. “Yes, thank you.” He was grateful that we had been arrested without causing any trouble and had gone with him. Everything had worked out.
We went inside the courtroom. It was about 7:30 or 8:00 when we got there. The court was located at Park-e Shahr, in the Park-e Shahr [judiciary complex]. That same Mr. Taheri was there too, along with the judge.
The judge said: “You’ve been charged with propaganda against the Regime and acting against national security,” and things of that nature. He then continued: “An order of detention has been issued against you. Do you have any objections?” “Well, the most important objection I have is that you just issued an order of detention, right now, but [my detention] was announced this morning on Radio Payam for all to hear.” He smiled and said: “Again, Radio Israel talking.” “No,” I said, “it’s not Radio Israel. Look, It’s very simple [to find out]. This is the Judiciary. All you have to do is call State Radio and Television or the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and they will tell you when the news was dispatched.”
The two of them looked at each other and said: “Well, whatever, it doesn’t matter. Now you’re being told.” “The point is that you had already issued a detention order before taking and hearing my statement,” I said, “This is just a formality, because the arrest was announced at 11 o’clock in the morning.”
“Do you have an objection or not?”
“Well, I do as a matter of principle, but who’s going to look into my objection?”
“Write it down.” So I finally wrote down that I objected to the order.
Then they took us to jail through the other door. And in the meantime, my brother and my husband were waiting outside in the street because the entrance to the building was closed and they didn’t let anyone in since it was night time. They were just waiting outside in front of the Judiciary building. I asked those people: “Please tell them to leave because I am being taken to jail, and they don’t know. They’re waiting for me to go back, so they can take me home.” “Fine,” they said, but of course, they didn’t. My husband and my brother had waited there until 11:30 PM, and then my brother had found out through the Guards at his place of work that I had been taken to jail. And then they went home.
To make a long story short, when the Revolutionary Guardsman said that night that he had an arrest warrant, I went to see my mother – you see, my office, our home, and my mother’s home are all in the same building, in different apartments, and I went to see her every night before she went to bed – and told her “Javad and I are going out to dinner tonight, and don’t worry if we come home late”. I told the kids to get pizza for dinner and that we would come back later, that is, I didn’t tell them I was being arrested because I thought there was a 10 percent chance that I might come back home, and so there was no reason to worry them. And if I stayed, then they would eventually find out. Not a big deal, why start a raucous?
So that night, they went home at around 11, 11:30, after my brother had found out that they had taken me to jail. The kids found out, and my mother found out. So I went to jail that night.
That place is a general prison, that is, everyone, drug traffickers, thieves, Monkeratis [people there for committing religiously sinful acts such as prostitution], all had to go through there, then they would get divided up.
“What does she do for a living?” he asked. Because usually, a woman wearing a chador, arrested and brought in at 11 PM, 12 midnight, is first thought of as having been picked up on the street, that is, as a prostitute.
So, sleepy as he was, he said: “What does she do for a living? Is she Monkerati?” I got very offended and said: “No, sir, my crime is political.”
Then I remembered a joke that was prevalent among us in those days…So when I said “No, sir, my crime is political,” I started laughing uncontrollably. My laughter was a nervous one and a reaction to the situation I was in, and I was actually laughing hard, too. And since I was not used to wearing a chador and hold a bag and laugh hard all at the same time, my chador fell from my head and I dropped the bag. The Guard said: “What’s the matter? Put yourself together.” So I put the chador back on and picked up my bag. Then he said: “Why are you laughing?” I wanted to answer him very calmly and in a dignified manner and say that I wasn’t the type of person he thought I was. So I said: “Because my crime…” and as soon as I wanted to say “is political” I started laughing again. This time he got angry and told the Guard that had brought me: “Come on, come on, get her out of here, get her out of here.”
They got me out of there and took me to a place where I stayed the night. But the very interesting and painful point (and I have written this somewhere) is that the woman who received me closed the door, then secretly opened it and told me: “Ms. Ebadi, I didn’t ever want to see you in here. Damn this job.” “You know me?” I asked. I thought she had been a client or something. She said: “When you used to come to the Reform and Education Center, I was a social worker there.”
I remembered that part of our work consisted of helping juvenile prisoners, and we had a number of educational and social work programs there. I would occasionally go and look at how the work was going.
Seeing an actual human being among all those beings that pretended to be human was very painful for me. A person can be a prison guard and keep their honor at the same time.
She came back a minute later and said: “You know, they serve dinner early here, around 7:00, 7:30. We don’t have any more food right now. I’ve brought you a piece of bread with some cheese; I know you must be hungry.” I thanked her and went to sleep.
They took me to be fingerprinted in the morning, and to do the preliminary work in the case, etc. They put a number around my neck and got my finger prints; I gave them my name, and filled out the forms. One person would ask questions and I would answer: Your mother’s name, your father’s name; who among you has been in jail; for what crime? All of these were in the form.
Then he said: “What is it that you get up to?”
I was an attorney and all my cases were political. I knew that when they arrested someone, they went to their house and searched it with a search warrant. He said he had a search warrant.
So I knew that they would go and search the house that very night or early in the morning, which was what they had actually done. The woman who had brought me there and knew who I was said: “She is an attorney at law. They’ve brought her here in connection with the tape makers case.” “Oh, I see,” he said, and he wrote something on a piece of paper. We found out that the previous night when I was laughing, he had thought I was an addict. and that I was high on something and that was why I was laughing. So when he had said “what do you do”, he had actually meant “what kind of drugs do you use”. And I was completely oblivious to what he was saying. My mind, the police detective mind, was thinking “these people must surely have gone to the house and seen the piano” and what not.
In any event, there I was. And then I was in solitary confinement. I was in such a tiny cell that I couldn’t walk. I would take four steps and my head would hit the wall because it was so tiny. The cell was covered with very dirty carpeting, and there were no chairs and no beds. Worst of all, they wouldn’t even give you a pillow.
At first, you don’t think that not having a pillow would be such a big deal, but you don’t know how bad it is and how much it hurts your spine until you try sleeping on a flat surface on the ground without a pillow. By the way, they took everything from me, even my watch. Worse yet, I have a problem with my sciatic nerve and I always have to wear pants, otherwise my sciatic nerve starts hurting. And so my sciatic nerve started to act up because the air was usually cold. I asked them to give me my socks so I could put them on. They said wearing socks was prohibited. When I asked the reason, they said “because you might undo the threads and make a rope and hang yourself with it. I said: “Wow! My hats off to your superb intelligence and reasoning! Are you kidding me? You think the threads from a pair of socks can hold this huge body of mine?! I’m telling you I have sciatic pain.”
I did not have a bed either. The cement wall did not have a window to the outside. There was a fluorescent light that was on all day and all night. I could tell a day had passed based on the serving of food they gave us. They would give us bread and cheese for breakfast. After a while, a few days, I thought to myself, what if they switch the servings of food on me to break me like switching the day serving with the night serving. I’m telling you, it makes you delusional.
Then, nobody showed up for a few days, which makes you more delusional. So much so that I was happy when they took me for interrogations, because I would at least see people, I could talk to other human beings.
I was not tortured during the interrogations. They used offensive language once or twice. They kept telling me to “tell the truth”. And what else could I say: “The truth is that I recorded it but I don’t know who distributed the tape.” And they kept repeating the same thing over and over and over again.
They would ask: “How did you come to know this person, Amir Farshad?” And I would say exactly how because I didn’t want to lie. “Why did you make a tape?” they would ask. “So that he would keep to his word and not cause any trouble for me.” “Who did you give the tape to?” “To Rahami. To what’s his name.” “You distributed it.” “I didn’t.” That was it; and the same conversation would take place again and again and again and again.
And one day, they said the trial had started. They took me to the courts building in a closed room. I had informed my family, and they had gone to a couple of my friends. Mr. Seifzadeh was my lawyer and another gentleman, whose name I don’t remember, was the second attorney. He had also been a classmate of mine. Before the trial, Seifzadeh saw me quickly and told me to sign a retainer so they would allow him to attend the trial session. So we went in the courtroom. Seifazdeh was there. When I got in they told me “these are the plaintiffs”. Rahami was there too. They had taken his clergy outfit and his turban off and he was wearing a prison uniform. There were a lot of people there.
There were many plaintiffs in the courtroom from the high ranks of the group they now call “Principlists”. It was very interesting, Mr. Allahkaram was there too. Allahkaram said: “This tape has ruined my reputation. I wanted to get my doctorate in geopolitics and on the day I was defending my thesis my professor asked – do you know what my professor asked me, your honor? – he asked me ‘is it true what’s on the tape?’ She has ruined our reputation, your honor.” It was a very strange situation. All the big shots were there too, lined up against me: the Resalat newspaper editor-in-chief, Allahkaram, Dehnamaki; they were all there.
It was a very strange situation in the courtroom. All the big shots were there too, lined up against me
So then I stood up and admitted that I had made the tape and asked “where does it say in the law that making a tape is illegal?” When I read the file after the session, I realized that they had beaten Amir Farshad and had also tried to induce him to say that “Ebadi had told me to tell these lies, and she said that she would get me out of Iran and to the United States and would get me a scholarship,” and that he had honorably resisted. He said in open court: “I stand by what I said. Everything I said is true. Give me an opportunity and investigate the matter.” But of course no one did. I was sentenced to a one and a half year suspended prison term. Farshad Amir Ebrahimi was also sentenced to imprisonment. On appeal, they acquitted everyone because of all the hoopla surrounding the case, except for Farshad Amir Ebrahimi who spent some time in jail, and me; they didn’t acquit me because they didn’t want to. So I substituted it with a monetary penalty. We paid 500 thousand tumans and the case was closed.
Had my witness been enticed by the interrogators’ promises, however, I would probably would have spent five or six years in prison, because they would then say “you instigated this guy to lie,” when that was not the case.
They said his [Ebrahimnejad’s] killer couldn’t be found and that he was in essence guilty himself because he had participated in assemblies and riots. And the case against him for participation in rioting was closed due to his death. Our complaint was dismissed and the case was closed. That’s it.
They categorically said that the tape was a fake “otherwise they wouldn’t have thrown you in jail”.
It did not serve any purpose at all. And the judge’s argument was that if this tape were genuine, you would not have been put in jail. That simple.
His [Ebrahimnejad’s] father and sister came to see me when I got out of jail. They had brought bread from their village, the poor guys. They said they had prayed a lot for me to be released, and what not. And then his file was closed. They came and went but they knew themselves there was nothing anyone could do.
I don’t scare easily. I’ve experienced things like that before.
For example, I represented the Forouhar family in the “chain murders” case. A man came and said: “I was a member of the group of killers. I can’t take it anymore, and I will give you information if you can provide me with a safe place.” “Well, give me something [so I know you’re telling the truth],” I said. He said something like “we went at 9:00 PM and did the killing” or something really unimportant like that, and I knew then that it was bogus because I had read the file and knew that the murder had been committed at 11:00 PM. So I said: “Thank you. Could you write all of that down and take it to court?” “What happens to my safe place?” he asked. “Honestly, if I knew of a safe place, I would hide there myself,” I replied.
There were a lot of times where they tried to undermine me. And let’s not even talk about threats! They were always there. Additionally, when I read the Forouhars’ case file, I learned that they had asked the defendant during interrogations what their plans had been, and he had said: “It seemed like we were scheduled to kill the next person, Ebadi. We learned her schedule from the two phone lines that she had. We went to Mr. Dorri Najafabadi, the then-Minister of Information and got an order for the operation. He said ‘don’t do it now because it’s the month of Ramadan. Wait until after Ramadan.’ And I got really lucky because the case came to light and Mr. Khatami issued an order of investigation before they could carry out the operation. But it stated expressly in the case file that I was supposed to be killed.
You know, I don’t know what goes on in people’s minds to know when they were scared and when they weren’t. This is not a question that anyone other than the specific person concerned can answer.
Look, there are a number of people who are well-known because of their human rights activities, so we were already ready for that. Mr. Soltani, for instance… The poor guy. Any time anything happens they go and arrest him. The poor guy has been imprisoned four or five times already. And the last time he got 10 years. But he never caved in. So the issue is the path you choose. When you choose a path, you have to continue on that path. You can’t stop mid-way and say “I’m sorry”.
We were never allowed to either read the case file or meet with the client in cases involving political and belief-based defendants, until interrogations were over… I have to know why my client is in jail, what they are charged with, and help them get out as quickly as possible. I have to know what their charge is, I have to talk to them, I have to read the case file. They did not allow any of these things.
Sometimes they let the interrogations phase go on for a year. Usually [in] solitary confinement.It definitely has an effect. Under torture, or psychological pressure. Solitary confinement itself is psychological pressure. You get mental stamina. You resist. Resistance to bullying. Because the entire story is that in Iran, they arrest you first, then they come up with a charge. Just like in my case: They had decided to send me to prison because of all the attention my cases were getting. They knew themselves that I had not done that.