Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Ebadi criticizes Rowhani's rights record

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Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi strongly criticized the human rights record of President Hassan Rowhani, citing a dramatic increase in executions since he took office this year and accusing the government of lying about the release of political prisoners.

She also pointed to spreading support for a hunger strike by human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani and three others in a Tehran prison to protest inadequate medical care, which was joined Monday by about 80 prisoners at another prison west of the capital.

Ebadi, a U.S.-based human rights lawyer who since 2009 has lived outside Iran in self-exile, said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press that Rowhani may have the reputation of a moderate reformer, but so far "we get bad signals" from the new government when it comes to human rights. Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts to promote democracy, becoming the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win the prize.

The comments by Ebadi were mostly directed at Rowhani. They also underscore Iran's internal tensions between Rowhani's government and hard-liners opposing diplomatic initiatives that include groundbreaking overtures to Washington. After Rowhani and President Barack Obama held an historic phone call during the Iranian leader's September trip to the United Nations in New York, Iran's top leader hinted that he disapproved, though he reiterated his crucial support for Rowhani's general policy of outreach to the West.

Ebadi's criticism further points out the limitations of Iran's presidency, which has little control of security or judiciary affairs that are under the sway of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the ruling clerics, as well as the powerful Revolutionary Guard.

Ebadi pointed to Tehran's largest anti-U.S. rally in years on Monday - the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 following the Iranian revolution - where tens of thousands of demonstrators chanted "death to America" and burned an American flag.

"How do they want to have a rapprochement with America when they do that?" she asked. "Therefore, I think it's too early to judge whether the relations between Iran and America will improve or not."

Ebadi also expressed outrage at the retaliation that followed the death of 14 border guards in a clash with government opponents on Oct. 25 near the town of Saravan near the frontier with Pakistan.

The semiofficial Fars news agency reported that 16 "rebels" were hanged hours later in revenge for the attack. But Ebadi said the prosecutor for the province went on television soon after the attack and announced that 16 prisoners arrested previously - who had nothing to do with the attack - had been executed in retaliation.

She said the government cracks down on human rights because of "fear, but they use religion or abuse religion in order to justify it."

And those executions weren't the only ones, she said.

In the last 10 days, 40 people have been executed, including some political prisoners, Ebadi said, and since Rowhani was inaugurated in August, the number of executions has doubled compared with a year ago.

Ebadi said government propaganda claims that dozens of political prisoners have been released.

"This is a big lie," she said. "Twelve or thirteen people have been released but these are people who had served their time." Top opposition figures, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.

Ebadi said the only political prisoner released early was prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, winner of the 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. She is still barred from leaving Iran, Ebadi said.

In another rights crackdown, she said, the editor of the reformist newspaper Bahar was jailed last week for publishing an article on Shiite Islam deemed offensive by authorities in the Islamic Republic, a predominantly Shiite nation. He was released on "hefty" bail after two days but the paper remains closed, she said

Ebadi, 66, left Iran just before the disputed 2009 election which gave Rowhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a second term.

She said she will return when she can carry out human rights activities and her colleagues are released from prison.

Ebadi expressed hope that nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers, which are set to resume Thursday, will lead to the end of U.S.-led sanctions and a settlement of the stalemate with the West over Tehran's nuclear program.

"But I have doubts," she quickly added, "and I think it's too early to be optimistic."

Instead of economic sanctions that impoverish Iranians, Ebadi urged the United States and Europe to block satellite access for Iranian "propaganda" broadcasts in 16 non-Persian languages, including English, Arabic and Spanish.

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