Book Review: In “New” Iran, Old Struggle for Rights Goes On

Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Berlin, Germany, September 18, 2012 (Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images)

World leaders have closely tracked Iran’s every move since its July 2015 signing of an international agreement committing its leaders to a peaceful nuclear program. United Nations sanctions have been lifted, western business leaders have met the highest levels of the Iranian government, and military sales on hold since 2010 have resumed, including an April delivery of Russian missiles.

Following the nuclear deal, there was speculation that the breakthrough might lead to other openings in Iran. So far, the track record on the domestic political scene shows few signs of a change in course. Western governments and the UN are wary and keeping the pressure on the country over its human rights record. In mid-April this year, the European Union renewed human rights-related sanctions in a series of travel bans and asset freezes. The United States’ annual country human rights reports released in April also included a tough assessment of Iran.

Accompanying these measures at the policy level, the release of Iranian Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi’s new book Until We are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran spotlights the daily humiliations and oppression of living in a police state. It is a gripping chronicle, in which the author writes of arrests, imprisonments, and psychological torture of human rights defenders, as well as their family and friends, in the Islamic Republic.

The book encompasses about 10 years of Dr. Ebadi’s human rights work through most of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency and the start of the Hassan Rouhani period. As the author’s story unfolds, the pressure and limitations on her work intensify until she becomes an exile in 2009, when the crackdown on the Green Revolution protest movement convinced her not to return to Tehran after traveling abroad.

Early in the book, Ebadi recalls becoming the lawyer of a prominent Iranian journalist, Akbar Ganji, whom she describes as the Islamic Republic’s Bob Woodward. Having once served in the Republican Guards, Ganji had turned to reporting on state-sponsored assassinations. He has already been in prison for five years when Ebadi takes on his case. She describes how, shortly after, her client goes on a hunger strike, which leads to her losing access to him. The Tehran prosecutor-general at the time, Saeed Mortazavi, is not to be challenged. Ebadi describes him as someone who “Perhaps more than any other official in living memory…is associated in the minds of the public with abuse and a sadistic passion for punishing dissidents and critics.”

So, it is not surprising that Mortazavi has a prominent place in the US government’s 2015 report on Iran’s human rights record, which lists him as benefiting from ‘‘impunity for past unlawful killings.” The former prosecutor was acquitted in mid-2015 on charges of killing three detained protesters after their arrests in 2009 and only got a sentence of six months for embezzlement charges.

Of all the abuses recounted in Ebadi’s book, what surprised me most was the similarity of the tactics used by the intelligence services and their allies in Iran—a sophisticated society with an active intellectual life—to those of the supposedly backward Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Women in Iran, including the author, have to be leery of standing on street corners, the author writes, as a slowing motorbike might indicate a possible acid attack. In Afghanistan, acid attacks have defaced girls on their way to school. Similarly, the author receives a death threat when she arrives at her apartment on a quiet side street in Tehran on a dark, rainy night, when nobody else is at home. She almost does not notice the note, nailed to her front door. Again, the incident is eerily similar to the “night letters” the Taliban used against villagers in Afghanistan.

Until We Are Free is a deeply personal story. Ebadi reveals how, even in exile, she has not been silenced. She continues her work defending human rights in Iran by speaking out on the global stage. As she does so, the pressure on her family back in Iran escalates. The relationship with her husband forms one of the central tensions of the book. He is tricked into a classic honey trap, imprisoned for adultery, and after days of solitary confinement, forced into a taped confession. The author’s sister, Nooshin, a dental professor, is arrested and, after two years living under nebulous police charges, acquitted of conspiracy against the state. Revealing the often arbitrary nature of Iranian justice, Nooshin is saved by coincidence: On the way into the courtroom to face her charges, she runs into one of her students, whose father just happens to be the presiding judge that day. The student, with her grade pending, puts in a good word with her father.

Towards the end of the book, Ebadi writes briefly about the Rouhani government, which has been seen by some as a moderating force. She expresses little hope for reforms in the country’s discriminatory legal system, however, writing that it “enshrines gender discrimination and violent punishments, including lashing and stoning.” While she suggests Rouhani could make a difference in “tackling the human rights violations that are not legally based but arise from the repressive ways the authorities treat Iranian citizens,” Ebadi does not hold out much hope of this occurring. She despairs of the fact that the leaders and others involved in the Green Revolution are in prison. As UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon highlights in his report to the Human Rights Council last March, two of these leaders—Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi—still await charges and their day in court after five years of house arrest.

The book is engrossing and, given its subject matter, important. Ebadi highlights the threats faced by her range of clients, whether they be Baha’i, Sunni, Sufi, other minorities, women and girls, or human rights activists. These are threats that persist, and go unchallenged due to the exile or incarceration of people like herself. The story is not over for the author, as her documentation of the intelligence services’ relentless psychological pressure and humiliation that is tearing her family apart attests.

Ebadi writes, “My aim in writing this book is to bear witness to what the people of Iran have endured in the past decade” and her book emphasizes the plight of ordinary Iranians. Through chapter after chapter, where the oppression can be both insidious and absurd, she accomplishes her objective.