- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday in an award intended to foster wider democracy in the Islamic world.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Mrs. Ebadi — Iran’s first female judge before the 1979 Islamic Revolution forced her to step aside in favor of men — for fighting for children and women, and for taking on cases others were too afraid to touch.

Mrs. Ebadi, 56, won from a record field of 165 candidates, including Pope John Paul II and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. She said she was shocked but proud to learn she had won the $1.3 million prize, to be handed out in Oslo on Dec. 10.

The Nobel Peace Prize award for Iranian lawyer-activist Shirin Ebadi may do more than place her in the rarified company of history-shapers such as Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa. It could hand Iranian reformers what they’ve been craving: a leader with the clout to rattle the entrenched theocracy.

Iranian state media waited hours to report the Nobel committee’s decision - and then only as the last item on the radio news update. It was not until late Friday that Iran issued an official statement, with government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh congratulating Ebadi for her prize.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Mrs. Ebadi “courageous” and many other foreign leaders hailed the prize.

But ex-Polish President Lech Walesa, the 1983 winner, grumbled that the ailing 83-year-old Polish pope should have won.

“We hope that the prize will be an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in her country, in the Muslim world, and in all countries where the fight for human rights needs inspiration and support,” said the committee, which is made up of five Norwegians chosen by parliament.

“This prize gives me the energy to continue my fight,” Mrs. Ebadi told a news conference during a visit to Paris, without the headscarf required in Iran under Islamic law.

Mrs. Ebadi is a lawyer and part-time lecturer at Tehran University. Jailed several times and once branded a threat to the Islamic system, she said she was honored by messages of congratulation that came even from the Vatican.

Mrs. Ebadi had often defended controversial causes. In 2000, she was given a suspended sentence after a court convicted her and another lawyer of producing a videotape claiming that prominent hard-liners supported activities of violent vigilantes.

“It’s not because you’re a Muslim that you can’t respect human rights, so all real Muslims should be really happy with this prize,” Mrs. Ebadi said. She also urged the release of political prisoners in Iran.

Mrs. Ebadi is the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which was first awarded in 1901. She is the 11th woman to win it and the third Muslim — after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1994 and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978.

Last year, former President Jimmy Carter won.

Reaction in Iran reflected the split between President Mohammed Khatami’s government and hard-liners who wield power.

In a statement read to Reuters, the government praised Mrs. Ebadi.

“Her points of view regarding the defense of human rights, especially women’s rights, were noticed by international peace-seeking circles and this is an honor for Iranian women, and shows Iranian Muslim women have gained a positive atmosphere for their activities,” it said.

“We hope her views will be noticed inside and outside Iran.”

But hard-liners reacted angrily.

“This prize carries the message that Europe intends to put further pressure on human rights issues in Iran as a political move to achieve its particular objectives,” said Amir Mohebian, an editor of the hard-line Resalat newspaper.

The United States congratulated Mrs. Ebadi, who it said had worked tirelessly for all Iranians, and used the occasion to restate its opposition to the country’s government.

“We fully support the aspirations of the Iranian people to live in freedom and hope the call for democracy will be heard and transform Iran into a force for stability in the region,” a White House spokesman said.

Nobel watchers say the committee has wanted to promote the cause of moderate Muslims since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States to try to avert religious intolerance after U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iran, prewar Iraq and North Korea were all branded an “axis of evil” by President Bush.

“Ebadi stands for a non-Western way of looking at human rights. That is a strong signal,” said Kari Vogt, a University of Oslo researcher who had correctly tipped her for the prize.

She said it would help Iran’s reformists and signal that “Islam and human rights are compatible.”

Nobel watchers say the pope’s opposition to birth control, premarital sex, homosexuality and female priests seemed outmoded to many people in mainly Protestant Norway, especially women, despite a 25-year reign devoted to peace and religious reconciliation. Three of the Nobel committee members are women.

In the Vatican, a senior official said the pope is not upset that he failed to win the Nobel and is above such awards.

“The pope is a messenger of peace,” Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano said in an interview.

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