Iran's Human Rights Test

Iranians are expected to turn out in record numbers tomorrow to elect a president. The world is watching. For many Iranians, this election will be a litmus test of the current government's claim that Iran is "the freest country in the world." While it is not officially on the ballot, the future of human rights in Iran is at stake.

In the past four years -- and particularly since the Obama administration came into office -- the government in Tehran, which has said it seeks to bring "kindness and justice to the world," has stepped up its harassment of human rights defenders. Its actions have put the Iranian government in violation of some of its own laws as well as some of its international commitments, including the 1998 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Women are frequently targets for such harassment. More often than not, their only "crime" seems to be that they are tirelessly working to bring about a more democratic system in Iran.

In my legal work in the past two years alone, I have defended more than 50 women unjustly jailed or detained by the Iranian government for their efforts to enact legislation that is less discriminatory to women than existing laws, exercise their basic political rights and enjoy freedom of the press. The situation for many women is difficult. Consider the recent case of Roxana Saberi, a young Iranian American journalist who was sentenced in April to eight years in prison for spying for the United States while working for the BBC and National Public Radio; not only was there nearly no evidence against her, but Saberi was denied even the basic right to defend herself. (On appeal, Saberi's sentence was reduced to two years, suspended; she was released and has returned to the United States.)

A great deal of government pressure is also imposed on the young women who launched the One Million Signatures Campaign, a grass-roots movement to reform the legal system and educate the public about discrimination against women. So far, they have collected signatures -- many of them from Iranian men -- and have talked face to face with thousands of Iranians about the importance of legal reform. This work is a powerful example of how a vibrant civil society is acting as a catalyst for change in Iran.

From the Iranian government's perspective, however, this work is too powerful. The government has launched a countercampaign against these women, and dozens have been imprisoned, harassed and denied travel documents to leave the country.

Although I am more well known internationally than most human rights defenders in Iran, I am not immune to the government's wrath. Last December, Iranian police raided and shut down the offices of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, an organization that I chair, on the illegitimate grounds that it was operating without a permit. The following week, government officials raided my law office and seized my computers and files. Shortly after, police stood by as a group of "demonstrators" attacked my home and office.

It is sad that peaceful protests organized by women seeking more legal rights end with arrests and violence at the hands of Iranian police -- while police officers look the other way during violent demonstrations outside my home.

Worryingly, in the lead-up to the elections, groups working to ensure free elections have also been targeted. Mehdi Mo'tamdi-Mehr, a member of the Committee to Defend Free, Healthy and Fair Elections, has been arrested. Many Iranians fear these elections will not be free or fair.

I am often asked about the elections, but what I think about who should win doesn't really matter. As a lawyer and as someone who has spent my career fighting for and within the Iranian legal system, I am more concerned with the legality of the protection of human rights within Iran. The true mark of success in Iran will be an election that follows due process. Politicians come and go -- but a healthy, functioning and fair legal system is the people's long-term guarantee for greater human rights.

In 2010, Iran will be up for a U.N. Universal Periodic Review on human rights. One of the important issues addressed in that review will be the manner in which government officials have treated human rights defenders. This week I wrote to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling upon him to reopen the Defenders of Human Rights Center and to end the harassment of civil, political and human rights activists.

In 2005, I wrote that Iran is undergoing a process of "awakening" -- it is a society undergoing profound social change. The latest government crackdowns on journalists and human rights defenders are unacceptable, but they will not deter Iranians from their chosen path. Iranians deserve a system that protects their rights. I am confident that this bold young generation of activists will not let the irrational acts of those who seek to hold our country back prevent them from systematically working to move Iran forward.

It is not an easy path, but most worthwhile ones rarely are.

Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer and a founding member of the Nobel Women's Initiative. She won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her work defending human rights in Iran.