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Iran: Reformists Targeted By Unknown Agents In New Hard-Line Crackdown

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

Reformist writers and lawyers in Iran say they are being targeted and intimidated by hard-liners, in what is the latest round in the ongoing political struggle between the two groups. As RFE/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin report, the intimidation is real, but the identities of those behind it and their purposes remain uncertain.

Prague, 22 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Almost everything about the summonses that reformist writers, authors, and lawyers in Tehran have been receiving over the past three weeks is mysterious.

The summonses come in the form of phone calls from Iran's morality police, who are usually responsible for enforcing official bans against unrelated men and women walking together in public. The phone calls are an order to appear in person for a meeting at a most unexpected location -- the downtown office of the branch of the morality police that specifically monitors restaurants and other public places to ensure no wild parties take place.

All of the some 20 private individuals who have received such calls have no apparent reason to be investigated by this particular police department, which is called the Public Places Supervision Office. But when they go, they find that there is, indeed, someone who wants to meet with them -- in the basement of the building.

Ahmad Bashiri is a reformist who recently received one of the summonses. He described the experience in an interview with RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Fereydoun Zarnegar this week.

"I was summoned by a phone call from the Public Places Supervision Office. When I got there, they showed me the way to the basement. They had some of my interviews and articles on their desks, and they kept repeating that my merest criticism of the Judiciary undermined the Judiciary's position. They wanted me to confess that I was a collaborator with SAVAK, the former regime's intelligence service."

Bashiri continues, "Then they verbally insulted me. I could not answer back because it was too degrading to both my personal and social ethics. And I was shocked [because] I didn't know why they would bring me to the Public Places Supervision Office for these matters."

Others summoned to meetings in the same basement say they also were subjected to intense verbal abuse, including threats of physical violence.

Firouz Gouran, a reform journalist, says he was asked why he gave interviews to foreign media and was accused of being on their payroll. The journalist says he questioned the authority of his interrogators to level such accusations and told them that, next time, he would not answer their summons. In that case, one interrogator said, he would personally break both of Gouran's legs.

Those who have suffered the basement interrogations say that the setting appears intended to create a far more threatening and intimidating atmosphere than the usual official practice of summoning reformists to answer various charges in the hardline-dominated courts. In the courts, the questioning also focuses on allegations that reformist editors or lawyers are threatening state institutions by printing articles critical of conservative officials or by defending detained liberals. But the court sessions are conducted by known judges, not anonymous individuals.

Equally menacing is the fact that at least one reformist was taken to his unofficial interrogation by force. Siamak Pourzand was abducted at night and is now under apparent arrest. The location of his detention is the same Public Places Supervision Office, where some friends have succeeded in visiting him. His brother, Lohrasb Pourzand, recently told the story to RFE/RL.

"My brother, Siamak Pourzand, who has been arrested for an unspecified crime, was not arrested through legal channels. He was ambushed by some unknown people at night, abducted, and was taken to an unknown place. He was visited twice, both times in the Public Places Supervision Office. It seems that he has been abducted by the personnel of the Public Places Supervision Office."

The summonses and abductions have raised a storm of protest from reformers, who have publicized the events in Iran's few remaining liberal newspapers, including the daily "Nowruz." Most reformist newspapers have been closed in a continuing press crackdown by the hardline-dominated Judiciary in response to the reformists' sweep of parliamentary elections in February 2000.

The reformists have been unable to use their control of parliament to reverse the press crackdown, which continues even after President Mohammad Khatami was re-elected on a platform of greater social freedoms last year.

One of the strongest public criticisms of the basement summonses has come from the Iran Writers' Association, which is still reeling from the murders of two writers, plus two prominent Iranian nationalists, in 1998. The serial murders of writers Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, and nationalists Darioush and his wife, Parvaneh Forouhar, went unsolved for months. Then, in early 1999, the Intelligence Ministry made a shocking announcement that the killings had been carried out by its own "rogue agents."

Efforts to trace the trail of responsibility beyond the assailants were foiled by the death in prison of the murderers' ringleader, who officially was said to have committed suicide.

The Writers Association wrote in an open letter to authorities recently that the basement "interrogations...have been illegal and insulting [and] have caused worry and anxiety among the members of this association." It added, "This association, which bears the deep wounds of serial murders...demands that officials stop the violators."

This week, the protests -- which also have come from Culture Minister Ahmad Masjed Jamei and some pro-reform legislators -- seem to have had an effect. The spokesman for Iran's Law Enforcement Forces said there have been no more such incidents since 16 February. But he failed to give an explanation for the events, except to say, "Summoning journalists and lawyers to the Public Places Supervision Office was done by a court order in relation to the investigation of a particular case." The police spokesman provided no further details.

That leaves many reformists in Iran still wondering who was behind the interrogations and why they have suddenly ended. RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan, who has closely followed the affair, says there are three ways to explain the end of the interrogations.

"The first possibility is that [those responsible] have built their case and are finished, and they do not need to summon anyone else. Or they have decided to give it a break until this outcry the reformists have brought about dies down, and then they will carry on again. Or, the third possibility is that because of the backlash of the reformists, they've decided to stop the project and not even go ahead with it, thinking that it is not worth it."

As discussion of the mysterious basement confrontations takes place, dozens of reformist journalists, dissident clerics, student activists, and religious nationalists remain behind bars. They include students arrested in 1999 during a week of nationwide unrest that followed student protests against hard-line vigilante attacks. They also include members of the Religious-Nationalist Alliance, a loose association of individuals and groups that advocates a Muslim state not necessarily under clerical leadership.

Friends and family of many of those arrested have accused hard-line authorities of psychologically and physically abusing detainees and forcing confessions from them before trial.

One student leader, Ali Afshari, told reporters at a news conference in Tehran this week that interrogators forced him to say he had plotted to overthrow the Islamic Republic in a confession broadcast on state television last year. Afshari was originally arrested for speaking at the conference on the future of Iran's reforms in Berlin two years ago and was given a one-year jail sentence. He later was released on bail while appealing that sentence but now is due to return to prison to serve it.