Shirin Ebadi, who last year became the first Muslim woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for her human-rights efforts, said on Wednesday that too many Islamic nations hid behind religion to justify human-rights violations.

"But I say we can be a Muslim and at the same time enjoy human rights and democracy," said Ebadi, who is touring the United States and Canada. "In order to justify the violation of human rights, Islamic governments invoke Islam."

The 57-year-old jurist said democracy was a historical process that could not be imposed from the outside and that the new Iraqi government would have to earn its legitimacy.

"It's the performance that we have to watch out for," Ebadi said. "Democracy is not a present to offer a nation. Democracy cannot be imposed when people are dropping bombs on them."

Supporters aplenty

"Therefore if the United States or any other country decides to contribute to the process of democracy, the way to do so is not through a military attack," she added.

"Democracy is not
a present to offer a nation. Democracy cannot be imposed when people are dropping bombs on them"

Shirin Ebadi

Ebadi said she had hoped that former president Saddam Hussein would be "overthrown by the people of Iraq themselves and not military power from the outside" and without approval of the United Nations.

Ebadi, who has been reviled by conservative religious leaders in her own country, said she had many supporters among reformists and young people. She was also recently honoured at a reception by Iran's UN ambassador, Javad Zarif.

She said that right-wing newspapers went so far as to call her "Sharon Ebadi", an obvious reference to Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, whom Iran considers an enemy.

She said no country in the world had a perfect human-rights record, including the United States, which had not signed key international treaties, such as the rights of the child.

Asked about the US abuse of Iraqi prisoners, she said, "America is a civilised society so I ask myself - how can it tolerate these actions and justify them?"