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Slogan-chanting Iran crowd welcomes Nobel Laureate
( 2003-10-15 09:18) (Agencies)

About 3,000 Iranians, chanting "Free political prisoners" and "Liberty and justice are the slogans of our nation," welcomed home Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi on Tuesday.

The human rights lawyer's Nobel prize has ignited strong passions in her home country, reflecting deep political divisions between reformers and hard-liners over the future of the Islamic Republic.

In a carnival-like atmosphere at Tehran's Mehrabad airport, welcomers clapped, linked arms and sang popular anthems dating from before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Many ordinary Iranians hope Ebadi's award will be a shot in the arm for the country's beleaguered reformist movement.

"Freedom is sweet, independence is sweet and Ebadi is sweet," they chanted in a play on words with Ebadi's first name, Shirin, which means "sweet" in Farsi.

Dressed in a black coat and red headscarf, Ebadi, 56, appeared overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception after flying in from Paris where she had been attending a conference when informed of her Nobel win on Friday.

"This award means that the Iranian nation's desires for human rights and democracy and peace have been heard by the world," Ebadi told the crowd, brushing tears from her face.

"This award doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the great Iranian nation," she said as she was showered with flowers.

Iran's first female judge before the Islamic revolution, Ebadi was commended by the Nobel Committee for her work promoting women's and children's rights.

But in Iran she is best known for taking on tough political cases which other lawyers dared not touch.


Hard-liners argue the country's first Nobel Peace Prize was a political move sponsored by its enemies and lambasted Ebadi for attending a Paris news conference last week without a headscarf.

Ebadi was met on the airport tarmac by members of her family, parliamentarians and representatives of President Mohammad Khatami's reformist government.

"I feel like a child who has returned to her mother, a drop of water which has returned to the ocean," Ebadi told reporters.

Outside the airport, well-wishers -- many clutching long-stemmed white flowers -- punched the air as they chanted daring political slogans. Security at the airport was not noticeably tighter than usual and there were no arrests.

Confetti and balloons were tossed into the air. Some young couples held hands in flagrant defiance of strict laws which prohibit physical contact in public between the sexes.

A group of around a dozen Islamic hard-liners looked on disapprovingly. They carried a banner which read: "Death to hypocritical scribblers."

Bemused travelers arriving on flights from Europe struggled to push their luggage trolleys through the mass of people.

"It's so emotional and unbelievable. Everyone here came to support her and her causes," said Zahra, 23, who like many women present sported a white headscarf as a symbol of peace.

Earlier on Tuesday Khatami said he was pleased an Iranian had won the Nobel prize but, in an apparent effort to deflect hardline ire, he played down the importance of the award.

"The Nobel Peace Prize is not that important, the awards for literature and science are more important," he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

Elected in landslide wins in 1997 and 2001, Khatami's popularity has plummeted in recent months due to mounting frustration at his failure to overcome resistance to change from powerful hard-liners.

"Khatami, Khatami, shame on you!" chanted sections of the crowd at the airport.

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