Iranian Nobel laureate awarded German Dignity Award

Iranian Nobel laureate awarded German Dignity AwardBerlin  - Iranian Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi was awarded one of Germany's top prizes Tuesday for her human rights advocacy work, and vowed that she would continue her efforts despite threats posed by Tehran authorities.

Together with Paris-based organization Reporters without Borders, Ebadi was awarded the Roland Berger Human Dignity Award by German President Horst Koehler. The prize was established in Germany last year to promote peaceful cooperation in the world.

"This reward is a response to all my work during the last few years," Ebadi told the German Press Agency dpa in an interview.

"It's going to be a moral support for all people who espouse human rights in Iran," the lawyer said shortly before the award ceremony.

As well as receiving 100,000 euros (130,000 dollars), Ebadi said the most important aspect of the prize was the opportunity to speak to a broad audience, by giving "access to many loudspeakers, in order to tell the world what's going on."

Born in 1947, Ebadi became Iran's first female judge. After the Islamic revolution stripped her of her position, she wrote and lectured on human rights until she was readmitted to practise law.

In 2003, Ebadi was the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ebadi's work has become more difficult in recent months as the government has clamped down on her advocacy work.

Late last year the authorities shut down her Defenders of Human Rights Center, confiscating politically sensitive files and arresting her secretary. In January, an angry crowd attacked her home while the police watched on.

"Working under these conditions is very hard," Ebadi said, although it had not stopped her or her colleagues from carrying out their work. On the contrary, Ebadi said, in recent days her organization had launched a new campaign, aiming to abolish all laws concerning the execution of minors.

In Iran, girls are considered legally accountable from the age of nine, and boys from the age of 15.

"If a 10-year-old girl committed a crime the punishment would be as hard as in the case of a grown-up person," Ebadi said. This punishment could include execution.

Ebadi is not shying away from taking on new cases, confirming Tuesday that she would defend Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi in her appeal against an eight-year prison sentence on charges of spying for the United States.

"There is no logical background for this sentence," Ebadi said, adding that 31-year-old Saberi is "only a young journalist," who "never had a chance to have contacts to foreign governments."

Ebadi is also defending seven members of the Bahai faith, due to face trial on charges of espionage after their arrests last year, which triggered Western fears of religious persecution.

She said she expected to be granted her first access to the detainees' files in May. She has been denied any contact with the suspects.

Ebadi, who was once briefly incarcerated before a five-year prison sentence was revoked, admits that she faces dangers in her work.

"Having fear is an instinct, everyone has fear," the lawyer said, before adding, "having worked for many years under such conditions I have learned to cope with the fears... I would never allow the fear to interfere with my work."

Not afraid of speaking out, Ebadi showed little sympathy with those countries who chose to boycott Iranian President Ahmadinejad's presence at this week's Geneva summit on racism.

"I'm convinced that it's much better to express your views instead of boycotting such events," the human rights advocate said.

After 27 years of fighting for an improvement in human rights in Iran, Ebadi admits the advances are minimal.

At the start of her career, Ebadi said, state-run newspapers would disparagingly label her a feminist and a human rights defender. But things have improved. "For the time being, defending human rights is not a kind of crime."

She was also doubtful that presidential elections on June 12 would bring much improvement, as candidates had to be approved first by the country's powerful Guardian Council.

"If somebody has critical views of the situation in Iran they would never be eligible for election," Ebadi said. As a result, "any election in Iran is not free."

Ebadi says she draws her determination from an inner conviction. "As soon as you really believe that what you are doing is correct, you will have the strength to do so."

The 61-year-old says her religion also plays a role. "I am a Muslim, I believe in God, and I'm sure that God gives me the strength and force to carry on." (dpa)

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