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Iran: Debate Grows Over Public Punishments

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

Iran's hard-line Judiciary recently resurrected the use of public floggings and hangings in an effort to deter crime. But the step has created a growing controversy in Iran between conservatives who regard the public punishments as necessary and reformists who see them as inhumane and anachronistic.

Prague, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, called last month for stepping up the use of public punishments. Since then, hundreds of people have been flogged in Tehran for minor offenses.

One of the most dramatic scenes occurred two weeks ago in Darband Square, which lies on a main road leading to a mountainous recreational area north of the capital. According to news reports, police arrested some 45 men in the area for drinking alcohol or accompanying women other than their relatives and brought them to the square to be publicly punished.

The men were laid one after another across a table, with their hands tied to the table legs, then flogged in proceedings that continued for three hours. The mass flogging was seen by thousands of people as they drove out of the capital to the countryside.

Scenes like this are fueling a passionate debate in Iran over whether the country wants to return to the routine use of public beatings and executions to enforce laws. Moderate President Mohammad Khatami is questioning whether public punishments have any positive result. At the same time, top hard-line clerics defend them as the way to stop what they say is the increasing "moral corruption" that has accompanied Khatami's attempts to increase social freedoms.

The debate turned rancorous over the weekend as Khatami sharply criticized a leading conservative after he praised Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia for regularly beating and executing people in public to maintain order.

The speaker, Qorbanali Dorri Najafabadi, said in a Friday sermon that the "Taliban, which we always curse, have managed to restore security.... Why cannot we do the same?" Najafabadi is a member of the powerful Expediency Council, which mediates disputes between the parliament and the watchdog Islamic Guardians Council.

Khatami said such remarks insult the Islamic Republic's founder and late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, something which in Iran is punishable by imprisonment. The president, who restated Shi'ite Muslim Iran's opposition to the Taliban's brand of fundamentalist Sunni Islam, also said punishments that are opposed by public opinion or "portray a false image of Islam should be set aside."

The question of whether public punishments are sanctioned by Iran's Islamic code has became central to the debate as it grows into a major new political battle between conservatives and reformists.

Some theologians, such as leading hard-liner Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, say public floggings are sanctioned in the Holy Koran and cannot be modified to fit the conventions of modern societies.

But other clerics such as Mohsen Mussavi-Tabrizi, a member of the Experts Assembly, which appoints the supreme leader, have said that punishments in public places are not sanctioned by the Koran and are based on an incorrect interpretation of it.

The conservatives and reformists do not disagree over the routine use of beatings and executions within prisons to punish law-breakers, only upon performing the punishments in public.

RFE/RL's Persian Service has followed the debate by speaking with journalists, sociologists, and young people in Tehran to learn how they regard the resurgence of public punishments. Public lashings and hangings were common after the 1979 Islamic Revolution but were gradually phased out over the last decades as the Islamic Republic, particularly under Khatami, has sought to soften its image abroad.

Tehran journalist Mohammad Hossein Jafarian told Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan recently that he agrees with the hard-liners' position on public punishment. Jafarian:

"If it's God's order to punish [criminals] and the person commits the crime knowing that he might be flogged and even die as a result, and yet he still commits the crime, then for me, as a Shi'ite believer living in the Islamic Republic, it does not matter if that person dies during the punishment."

But Davar Shaikhavandi, a Tehran sociologist, told Persian Service correspondent Jamshid Zand that he feels public punishments only terrify ordinary citizens, not criminals. Shaikhavandi:

"According to the experience of recent years, particularly after the [Islamic] Revolution, these punishments have had no effect but to awaken society [against them]. It does not create fear in criminals, who continue committing crimes, but it instills fear in the society."

A Tehran student, who asked not to be named, told the Persian Service he is disgusted by the return of public punishments:

"I have seen things which make me want to leave the country. Young people are being punished for attending a party where alcohol is served or listening to music. If I want to listen to music I have to hide, and in such an atmosphere, how can I think of studying?"

Psychologist Shaheen Oliaie-Zand told RFE/RL that there has been little reaction so far from young people against the resurgence of public punishments only because schools have been closed for summer holidays.

As the debate continues, there are signs this week that clearer guidelines may soon be issued for judges regarding when to order public punishments. Khatami said over the weekend that the Judiciary will publish a list of crimes punishable in public.

At the same time, reformist parliamentarians say they want the issue of public punishments decided by Iran's highest security decision-making body, the Supreme National Security Council. A leading member of parliament, Mohsen Armin, calls the issue an extra-legal matter that affects the country's national interests and one that should not be left to judges to decide.

Iran's reformists worry that the resurrection of public punishments hurts the country's image abroad just as it is seeking greater foreign investment for its ailing economy. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said last weekend that his ministry is measuring international reaction to the public floggings.

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