Protesters attack Tehran home of Nobel winner Shirin Ebadi

Story Highlights
  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi's office raided by Iranian authorities Monday
  • Protesters attack her office, home in Tehran Thursday, accuse her of backing Israel
  • Ebadi, a veteran human rights activist, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003
  • Fellow rights activists, Nobel prize winners have expressed fears for her safety

From Shirzad Bozorgmehr

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- A group of demonstrators attacked the Tehran home and office of Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi on Thursday, trampling a sign in the front yard, spray-painting slogans on her building and accusing her of supporting Israel, her office said.

Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her human rights work.

Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her human rights work.

Police dispersed the group of protesters, who identified themselves as medical students, about a half-hour after the demonstrators arrived, she said.

According to a statement from Ebadi's Center for the Defenders of Human Rights, the protesters chanted, "Ebadi supports Israel's murders."

"Ironically, the chanting of the slogan comes shortly after the Center for the Defenders of Human Rights issued a statement condemning the violence in Gaza and demanding quick action by international organizations," it said in a news release.

Ebadi could not be reached for comment.

On Monday, government agents raided Ebadi's law office -- which is in the same building as her apartment -- seizing two computers and dozens of files and documents on her clients, who are mostly political activists, Ebadi told CNN Wednesday.

The authorities said they were from the tax office, Ebadi said. Her offices were shut down last week after police raided her office as guests arrived for a belated celebration of the 60th anniversary of U.N. Human Rights Day.

That sparked condemnation by the European Union, which called on Iran "to respect their international human rights commitments and the right to peaceful assembly."

Ebadi, a former judge and veteran human rights activist, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

She has led several high-profile campaigns on behalf of women and children in Iran and successfully campaigned to reveal those responsible for a 1999 attack on Tehran University students that left several dead. She has been imprisoned by Iranian authorities on numerous occasions.

Other peace prize winners have launched a letter-writing campaign to the United Nations and to Iranian embassies around the world in an effort to raise concerns about her safety.

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Kristof: The Evil Behind the Smiles

Sina Vann

January 1, 2009

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

Western men who visit red-light districts in poor countries often find themselves surrounded by coquettish teenage girls laughingly tugging them toward the brothels. The men assume that the girls are there voluntarily, and in some cases they are right.

But anyone inclined to take the girls’ smiles at face value should talk to Sina Vann, who was once one of those smiling girls.

Sina is Vietnamese but was kidnapped at the age of 13 and taken to Cambodia, where she was drugged. She said she woke up naked and bloody on a bed with a white man — she doesn’t know his nationality — who had purchased her virginity.

After that, she was locked on the upper floors of a nice hotel and offered to Western men and wealthy Cambodians. She said she was beaten ferociously to force her to smile and act seductive.

“My first phrase in Khmer,” the Cambodian language, “was, ‘I want to sleep with you,’ ” she said. “My first phrase in English was” — well, it’s unprintable.

Sina mostly followed instructions and smiled alluringly at men because she would have been beaten if men didn’t choose her. But sometimes she was in such pain that she resisted, and then she said she would be dragged down to a torture chamber in the basement.

“Many of the brothels have these torture chambers,” she said. “They are underground because then the girls’ screams are muffled.”

As in many brothels, the torture of choice was electric shocks. Sina would be tied down, doused in water and then prodded with wires running from the 220-volt wall outlet. The jolt causes intense pain, sometimes evacuation of the bladder and bowel — and even unconsciousness.

Shocks fit well into the brothel business model because they cause agonizing pain and terrify the girls without damaging their looks or undermining their market value.

After the beatings and shocks, Sina said she would be locked naked in a wooden coffin full of biting ants. The coffin was dark, suffocating and so tight that she could not move her hands up to her face to brush off the ants. Her tears washed the ants out of her eyes.

She was locked in the coffin for a day or two at a time, and she said this happened many, many times.

Finally, Sina was freed in a police raid, and found herself blinded by the first daylight she had seen in years. The raid was organized by Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who herself had been sold into the brothels but managed to escape, educate herself and now heads a foundation fighting forced prostitution.

After being freed, Sina began studying and eventually became one of Somaly’s trusted lieutenants. They now work together, in defiance of death threats from brothel owners, to free other girls. To get at Somaly, the brothel owners kidnapped and brutalized her 14-year-old daughter. And six months ago, the daughter of another anti-trafficking activist (my interpreter when I interviewed Sina) went missing.

I had heard about torture chambers under the brothels but had never seen one, so a few days ago Sina took me to the red-light district here where she once was imprisoned. A brothel had been torn down, revealing a warren of dungeons underneath.

“I was in a room just like those,” she said, pointing. “There must be many girls who died in those rooms.” She grew distressed and added: “I’m cold and afraid. Tonight I won’t sleep.”

“Photograph quickly,” she added, and pointed to brothels lining the street. “It’s not safe to stay here long.”

Sina and Somaly sustain themselves with a wicked sense of humor. They tease each other mercilessly, with Sina, who is single, mock-scolding Somaly: “At least I had plenty of men until you had to come along and rescue me!”

Sex trafficking is truly the 21st century’s version of slavery. One of the differences from 19th-century slavery is that many of these modern slaves will die of AIDS by their late 20s.

Whenever I report on sex trafficking, I come away less depressed by the atrocities than inspired by the courage of modern abolitionists like Somaly and Sina. They are risking their lives to help others still locked up in the brothels, and they have the credibility and experience to lead this fight. In my next column, I’ll introduce a girl that Sina is now helping to recover from mind-boggling torture in a brothel — and Sina’s own story gives hope to the girl in a way that an army of psychologists couldn’t.

I hope that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will recognize slavery as unfinished business on the foreign policy agenda. The abolitionist cause simply hasn’t been completed as long as 14-year-old girls are being jolted with electric shocks — right now, as you read this — to make them smile before oblivious tourists.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

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Heroine: Helen Suzman, "An undaunted champion of freedom"

Helen Suzman
Helen Suzman: the conscience of white South Africans

Helen Suzman was a relentless critic of South Africa's Nationalist government. For 13 years, as sole member of the Progressive Party in parliament, she was the only MP to speak out against racial segregation, at a time when only the white minority enjoyed the right to vote.

Born in 1917 to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, she married Dr Moses Suzman, who became one of South Africa's leading physicians.

Five years after graduating from Witwatersrand University, she joined the staff as a lecturer in economic development.

Helen Suzman's interest in disadvantaged urban Africans increased after she became a member of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

She began to take an active role in politics after the 1948 election, when the mildly liberal United party was replaced by the National party, with its rigid policy of apartheid.

Racial discrimination

In 1952, standing for the United party, she was elected to the House of Assembly as the Member for Houghton, a prosperous and largely-Jewish suburb near Johannesburg.

Helen Suzman
An undaunted fighter for freedom
But, in 1959, Mrs Suzman was one of 12 liberal MPs who broke away to form the Progressive party, which called for the right of all, regardless of race and creed, to take part in government "in accordance with their degree of civilisation".

But in the general election of October 1961, Helen Suzman was the only one of these members to retain her seat.

She was the only candidate, since the first South African parliament was established in 1910, to be elected by a white constituency on a platform that clearly rejected racial discrimination.

Government 'bullies'

As the lone voice of real opposition in parliament, Mrs Suzman spoke out against such measures as the 90-day detention law of 1963, which, she maintained, brought South Africa "further into the morass of a totalitarian state".

At a public rally in Johannesburg in 1966, she condemned the use of arbitrary powers by the justice minister and excoriated the government as "narrow-minded, prejudiced-ridden bullies".

I hate bullies and like simple justice
Helen Suzman

Her conception of a multi-racial society did not insist on immediate universal suffrage, but envisaged the right to vote for those who had had seven years of schooling, or four years of schooling and two years of employment.

Although Helen Suzman was re-elected in 1966, the accession of John Vorster as Prime Minister after the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd appeared to herald little change in the repressive policies of apartheid.

Opposed sanctions

The antipathy between her and another leader, President PW Botha, dated back to Verwoerd's murder in parliament in 1966, when an enraged Botha screamed in Mrs Suzman's face: "You liberals have done this - now we're going to get you!"

President P.W. Botha
Botha was a bitter enemy
Mrs Suzman visited Nelson Mandela in jail and was warned by PW Botha about contacts with opponents of the South African regime.

But her opposition to sanctions against South Africa lost her friends among radical black people. She believed that isolating South Africa would not solve any of its racial problems, and would harm the black population and neighbouring African states.

International honours

In 1989, Mrs Suzman announced her resignation. One of her last actions as an MP was a motion to impeach a judge who imposed a suspended prison sentence on a white farmer found guilty of beating a black labourer to death.

It had no chance of success, but Helen Suzman eventually won her argument with white MPs that apartheid could not be maintained indefinitely.

Her work was recognised by many honours from many countries. She won the United Nations Human Rights award in 1978 and the Queen made her an honorary Dame in 1989.

When she received a degree from Oxford University, the then Chancellor, Harold Macmillan, described Helen Suzman as an "undaunted champion of freedom".

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