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Legal Happenings

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi Headlines Iranian American Bar Association Conference

April 29, 2024

By John Murph

Shirin Ebadi
2003 Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi (right) with national Iranian American Bar Association President Yasmin Bigdeli.

Access to justice and the weakened legal profession in Iran were among the top issues spotlighted at the Iranian American Bar Association’s (IABA) Ninth Annual National Conference and Gala on April 20 in Washington, D.C., that drew more than 200 attendees.

The highlight of the daylong event was a keynote speech by 2003 Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, a world-renowned educator, lawyer, and human rights champion. In 1975 Ebadi became the first woman president of the city court of Tehran, but after the 1979 Islamic revolution, she was fired along with all other women judges.

“I know that there is a lot to be said about Iran,” Ebadi said through a translator. “There are many stories, which are mostly sad. However, since we are in a gathering of attorneys, let me focus on the situation [involving] attorneys in Iran.”

Ebadi recalled her experiences as an attorney practicing in Iran after the revolution and after the Iran Bar Association was dismantled. “The revolutionaries did not believe in the institution of representation,” Ebadi said. “As members of the board of the bar [who] were elected by the attorneys, we were all brought down. Many were thrown in prison or fired.” Over the next 18 years, 141 attorneys lost their license to practice law “on the basis of the fact that they were anti-revolutionary or that they believed in the Bahá'í faith,” Ebadi added.

Ebadi wasn’t permitted to practice law in Iran until 1992, when she began defending dissidents and others whose human rights were violated. Her work as a human rights lawyer led to her arrest and 25 days of solitary confinement by the Islamic Republic in 1999. She was sentenced to one and a half years in prison and banned from working as a lawyer for five years, although this was later reduced to a fine during the appeals process.

In 1997, following international political pressure, an elected board was reinstated for the Iran Bar Association. Nevertheless, Iran’s parliament issued a law requiring nominees for the board to be vetted by the judiciary. “This meant that any of the attorneys like myself were not vetted,” Ebadi said. “We were never permitted to get on the board.”

“There were other laws that were passed, resulting in [diminished] power of attorneys,” Ebadi said. “About eight years ago, a law was passed [requiring] attorneys representing political prisoners, or prisoners of conscience, to be designated by the judiciary during the investigation or interrogation process,” which means a defendant does not have the right “to pick or elect their own attorney, until the matter was sent to the court.”

When Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, she donated part of the money to the Defenders of Human Rights Center. She left Iran in 2009 before the country’s presidential election and now resides in London.

“Since the revolution of 1979, there is no time that I can remember that the [Iranian] prisons were free of attorneys,” Ebadi said.

Ebadi apologized for delivering such a somber keynote address, but issued a call to action to attendees. “I want to ask you, my dear colleagues and friends, to use the freedom of speech that you enjoy, to use the principles of justice and equity that we all believe in, to talk about the attorneys who are imprisoned in Iran for just being attorneys,” she said.

In addition to Ebadi’s address, the IABA conference also featured the awarding of scholarships to three law students and the presentation of the organization’s annual awards. Fenwick & West LLP received the Pro Bono Award for its representation of Afghans who arrived in the United States after the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021. The firm also established the Fenwick Afghan Assistance Program to support Afghans seeking humanitarian parole.

“I’m always proud to work with colleagues when called upon to help,” said Floyd Mills, Fenwick’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Ensuring that everyone has access to justice, regardless of where they are from or their ability to pay for legal services — that is something that Fenwick is proud to stand for. I’m thrilled to be recognized [by IABA] for our work.”

Yasmine Chubin, legal advocacy director of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s Docket Initiative, received the International Justice Award for her organization’s efforts to gather evidence to initiate prosecutions against perpetrators of mass atrocities and to represent survivors of human rights violations in court.

 “Receiving this honor from such esteemed peers and fellow Iranian lawyers is not only incredibly humbling, but it also validates my work in terms of our shared values as a community,” Chubin said. “This work is fraught with challenges. It’s slow, it’s imperfect, it’s politically influenced. But I think it remains the best mechanism for holding perpetrators accountable and giving a voice to the voiceless.”

 The Collective for Black Iranians, led by filmmaker and creative director Priscillia Kounkou Hoveyda, won the Community Impact Award for raising the voices and stories of Black Iranians. Accepting the award on Hoveyda’s behalf was Nader Shayegh, a medical student at Howard University. Shayegh shared Hoveyda’s story of feeling isolated while growing up as one of the few Black Iranians in Tehran and fighting against erasure of Blackness.

 “My goal is simple but challenging,” Hoveyda said in a statement read by Shayegh. “[It is] to influence Iranian culture and make it see us, make it center [on] Black Iranian stories, and to finally begin to acknowledge the harmful consequences of forced silence made [with sentiments such] as ‘We don’t have Black Iranians,’ ‘We don’t see color as Iranians,’ or the crooked concept of Blackness being a Western concept.”

 Meanwhile, Microsoft chief legal officer Hossein Nowbar received IABA’s first Trailblazer Award for his role in advancing the company’s public policy priorities around the world. In accepting the award, Nowbar thanked his family and colleagues at Microsoft. “We reflect those [with] whom we surround ourselves. It’s the company that we keep — those from whom we learn and grow — who impart wisdom to help us become our best,” Nowbar said. “As I accept this award for being a trailblazer, I want to share with you what I’ve always made a priority in my life. And that is to know and have the humility to remind myself every day that I know less than I know more.”

 The conference also included panel discussions on sanctions; human rights and international law; artificial intelligence, ethics, and the law; and immigration, as well as a conversation with Iranian American judges.