She said it was of little difference whether hardline Tehran mayor Mahmood Ahmadinejad or former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani won.

"I have protested from the start about the electoral law. For me the only option is civil disobedience and this is the least we can do. The votes are not just, because they are not free," she said.

"The votes that come out of the boxes are valid as long as they have been the results of a free election. Can you say Saddam Hussein's regime was legitimate or the elections fine just because he got 99% of the votes?"

Ebadi's stance on the election, which she says is not fair as the unelected Guardians Council has the power to choose who stands in the first place, has been criticised by some liberals as an irresponsible luxury at a critical time for the country.

Not an example

The diminutive 57-year-old emphasised she had taken the decision as an individual citizen and not to set an example.

"People have reached a level of awareness, they know what to do. They do not need to be handed a prescription given by people like me," Ebadi said.

'A Rafsanjani presidency is the
continuation of the old state'

She also scoffed at suggestions that there was a wide ideological gulf between the two candidates and that a vote for Rafsanjani was needed to prevent reforms being rolled back and liberties restricted.

"A Rafsanjani presidency is the continuation of the old state," she said.

For the fate of human rights cases like that of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who was killed while in police custody in Tehran, "there will be no difference whoever becomes president", she said.

One-way street

Ebadi also dismissed widespread fears that a president Ahmadinejad would overturn reforms achieved during the term of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, saying the Iranian people would ensure the changes were here to stay.

"Freedom is a one-way street. What has been achieved cannot be taken away. People will simply not allow it," she said.

'The cultural situation of Iran will
not allow a Taliban-style regime'

Ebadi, awarded her Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work promoting women's and children's rights in Iran, also accused Rafsanjani's campaign team of scaremongering.

"The whole fear that Hashemi's campaign has spread, their scheme to earn votes has been to say that if you do not vote for him then the Taliban will come to power."

"The cultural situation of Iran is not one that will allow a Taliban-style regime to be imposed here. Sixty per cent of university students are women. The feminist movement is very strong. I am sure that the people will protect the freedom they have achieved," she said.

"No matter how much you have to pay, young Iranians have shown several times they are prepared to pay this price, this can be seen by the number of political prisoners."

Best president

The feisty rights lawyer described Khatami, whose efforts at reform were often quashed by intransigent hardliners, as "the best president we have ever had".

"I am an Iranian, I am staying. Remember that I have been to prison and when I came out of jail I did not leave Iran"

Shirin Ebadi,
Iranian Nobel laureate

"The most important achievement of Khatami was that he revealed the serial murders of intellectuals and put an end to them," Ebadi said, referring to a string of gruesome murders that shocked the country in 1998 and were eventually blamed on "rogue" intelligence agents.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, Ebadi reaffirmed her commitment to staying in Iran to fight the cause of human rights from her small premises in the northwest of the city.

"I am an Iranian, I am staying. Remember that I have been to prison and when I came out of jail I did not leave Iran," she said.