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Nobel laureate: Iranian-Americans political prisoners

Story Highlights

• Shirin Ebadi says her client, Haleh Esfandiari, is innocent of crimes against Iran
• Esfandiari held at Evin Prison, which houses many dissidents, political prisoners
• Two other Iranian-Americans detained, another prevented from leaving country
• Ebadi is first Muslim woman to have won Nobel Peace Prize
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- An Iranian-American woman detained in Tehran is being held illegally and has been repeatedly denied access to an attorney, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi told CNN on Friday.

Ebadi said that Haleh Esfandiari and other Iranian-Americans held in Iran are political prisoners.

"Iran doesn't observe laws," she said through an interpreter in an exclusive interview while visiting the United States. (Watch Ebadi describe Esfandiari's arrest Video)

Iranian officials have said Esfandiari, a scholar with dual citizenship, is being held in prison in Tehran while under investigation for "crimes against national security."

Ebadi, one of Esfandiari's attorneys, said her client is innocent.

The Nobel laureate said that two of her colleagues went to try to see Esfandiari but officials at a judge's office would not let them in.

When they asked to read Esfandiari's file, they were denied access, she said.

"And when they asked what the charges were, they did not get an answer," she said.

Esfandiari, who works for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, was detained in Tehran on May 8. Her husband, Shaul Bakhash, said she had been questioned for weeks before her arrest.

Esfandiari's problems began in December, when her passports were stolen as she was on her way to catch a flight home. When she applied for a new passport, authorities began questioning her about her work. The Woodrow Wilson Center says the questioning was conducted by officials of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

Earlier this month, Esfandiari was locked up in Tehran's Evin Prison, which houses many Iranian dissidents and political prisoners.

In 2000, Ebadi was held in the same prison.

"This is a small room with cement walls and no windows," she said. "There is a fluorescent light that's on 24 hours. And since one's watch is taken from one, you can never tell the time."

Ebadi said she will return to Iran early next month to take up Esfandiari's case -- and try to visit her in prison. "I will go there two or three times per week. I will challenge the court, and I will make them understand that they are violating my client's human rights."

Ebadi, who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, is the founder of the Center for Defense of Human Rights in Tehran. She is the first Muslim woman to win the coveted award.

In a statement issued Friday, Human Rights Watch demanded the Iranian authorities "should immediately release the three Iranian-Americans and the dozens of activists, teachers and scholars arbitrarily detained."

Others reportedly detained

Besides Esfandiari, Human Rights Watch said an Iranian-American sociologist, Kian Tajbakhsh, also is being held at Evin Prison after being arrested May 11. Tajbakhsh works for the Open Society Institute. The Iranian authorities have not confirmed his arrest.

Associates of Ali Shakeri, another Iranian-American who recently had traveled to Iran, told Human Rights Watch that he is also being detained by the Iranian authorities. The Iranian government has not provided any public information about his whereabouts.

The authorities also have confiscated the passport of Parnaz Azima, a reporter for Persian-language broadcaster Radio Farda who holds both Iranian and American citizenship. The prosecutor's office told her that she would be charged with working for an "institution spreading publicity against the Iranian Islamic Republic."

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Shirin Ebadi, an attorney who won the Nobel Peace Prize, says she'll go to Iran next month to take up Haleh Esfandiari's case.



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