On Monday November 9, the award ceremony for this year’s winner of the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders will take place in Geneva. The recipient of the award will probably not be there though. Emadeddin Baghi, one of Iran’s leading intellectuals and human rights activists, will be the first laureate in the award’s eighteen-year history to be denied the opportunity to receive his prize in person since the Iranian authorities are not allowing him to leave the country to accept it.
Iran’s citizens have won more than their fair share of prestigious international human rights awards. Fearless attorney and human rights defender Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2003, the first (and only) Muslim woman to receive that honor. Parvin Ardalan, a prominent journalist and women’s rights activist, was awarded the Olof Palme Prize for 2007 for her activism on behalf of women’s rights in Iran. And this year, Emadeddin Baghi won the Martin Ennals Award for his work to defend the rights of prisoners and to end the imposition of the death penalty. However, instead of expressing pride in the accomplishments of their citizens, the Iranian authorities have not only done their best to try to silence their voices, but won’t even let them collect their awards.
Parvin Ardalan had already boarded a plane at the airport in Tehran in March 2008 to fly to Stockholm to accept her Olof Palme Award when she was removed from the flight by Iranian authorities. Her passport was then confiscated. Since that time, she has been battling charges against her stemming from her activities with the One Million Signatures Campaign, calling for better rights for women. She was finally able to leave Iran to go to Sweden in October 2009.
Although Shirin Ebadi was allowed to accept her Nobel Prize in person, she has been subjected to persistent and withering threats, intimidation, and persecution. In December 2008, dozens of government agents carried out a raid on the Center for Human Rights Defenders, run by Ms Ebadi to provide legal assistance to victims of human rights violations, hours before they were planning on holding an event there to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Center staff members and guests were harassed and intimidated and the center was forcibly closed; documents and computers containing protected attorney-client information were later removed.
The Martin Ennals Award, named for the first secretary-general of Amnesty International, is a collaboration of ten of the world’s leading human rights organizations, including AI. It is “granted annually to someone who has demonstrated an exceptional record of combating human rights violations by courageous and innovative means.” The Chairman of the Jury of the MEA, Hans Thoolen, described Emadeddin Baghi as “an exceptionally brave man defending human rights despite imprisonment and poor health.”
Emadeddin Baghi is the founder of the Association for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights, which had been compiling information on torture and other abuses of detainees. He has focused attention on Iran’s appalling record of executing juvenile offenders, as well as the execution, following grossly flawed legal proceedings, of a number of Iranian Arabs accused of politically motivated crimes. In the late 1990s he exposed the mysterious serial murders of Iranian intellectuals. His books Right to Life and Right to Life II argue for the abolition of the death penalty using Islamic texts and jurisprudence. They have been banned by Iranian authorities–who had previously shut down his newspaper Joumhouriat in 2003– and Mr. Baghi has served years in prison on charges of “endangering national security” and “printing lies.” In December 2007, during his most recent imprisonment, he suffered three seizures and remained in poor health without adequate medical care until his release in October 2008. Officials closed down the office of the Association for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights in September 2009.
Amnesty International has deplored the Iranian authorities denying Emadeddin Baghi the opportunity to personally accept an award he so richly deserves.