Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for risking her life to defend victims of political violence in Iran. On December 28, amid a crackdown on anti-government protesters, her sister Nushin Ebadi—a professor of dentistry who is not politically active—was detained by Iranian intelligence officials in what may have been a bid to intimidate Ebadi, a human rights lawyer and campaigner for democracy, into halting her work. In this chilling excerpt from her 2006 memoir, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, Ebadi recalls the frightening details of her own arrest in 2000.
My Advance Warning
When you are about to be arrested in the Islamic Republic of Iran, you get advance warning in the press. Just as you might turn to a certain page for the week’s weather forecast, you can scan the front page of two or three hard-line papers as a guide to whose arrest is on the way. If the headlines fall below the fold or appear intermittently, the handcuffs are a good two or three weeks away. If the libel against you is making the front page every day, if the fury has become palpable in the top headlines, you know you should pack your overnight bag.
The hard-line apparatus is media savvy. It sends out the equivalent of press releases early, to ensure that Western media outlets can catch the news. But it forgets to embargo their release until the actual hour of the arrest — which is how phone calls such as one I received early one morning come to pass.
"Hello?" I said.
"Hello?" repeated the caller. "Who is this?"
"This is Shirin Ebadi."
"Mrs. Ebadi! I’m so happy to hear your voice! We received a telex earlier saying you had been arrested…."
"Really? You don’t say…."
That day the phone did not stop ringing. For hours I repeated over and over to journalists that I was not in prison. Yet. My sister called, after hearing a news bulletin on a Persian-language European radio station. "It’s all a mistake," I assured her.
The Worst Phone Call of My Life
At 5:00 that afternoon, June 28, 2000, the phone call I had been waiting for finally came. "Please report to Branch 16 of the Tehran General Court," the caller said.
As I made a last-minute survey of the apartment, checking to be sure I had packed my blood-pressure medication and an extra toothbrush, I convinced myself I would be back soon. "Your father and I have a meeting this evening," I called out to my two teenage daughters, who were watching television in the living room. "Order yourselves a pizza for dinner." I was anxious that my husband, Javad, not linger too long at the ministry, where I had been ordered to report, in case our daughters started to worry.
The session with the court judge lasted 20 minutes. He promised to alert my husband, who I presumed was waiting outside, that I had been taken to prison. The guards led me through a back door to a parking lot. It was quite late, after 10, and the fluorescent streetlights bathed the parking lot in a strange orange glow. The traffic had slowed by that hour, so it didn’t take long to drive up the expressway, past the spiraling twin minarets of the new praying grounds. The driver stopped at a kiosk along the way and bought me a soda. My mouth had gone dry.
My First Moments in Evin
The prison known as Evin is tucked away on the side of an expressway in northern Tehran. It is one of the few institutions in Iran whose reputation has passed unchanged from the shah’s regime to the Islamic Republic. With its iron walls and low-slung architecture, the prison holds a grim reputation for having been the scene of thousands of executions since the revolution. The name Evin conjures images of basement interrogation chambers and long rows of dank, narrow solitary cells, and occupies perhaps the darkest corner of the Iranian imagination.
I was wholly unprepared for the first question I was asked when I arrived:
"Are you here for a moral offense?"