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Iran Report: December 20, 1999


20 December 1999, Volume 2, Number 50

DESPITE DEATH SENTENCES, STUDENTS STILL SUPPORT KHATAMI. The Islamic Union of Students and Graduates has announced that Ahmad Batebi and Akbar Mohammadi, who previously had been sentenced to ten years imprisonment, now have been condemned to death, "Manateq-i Azad" reported on 11 December. Akbar Mohammadi is the brother of Manuchehr Mohammadi, whose heavily edited "confession" was televised in July, while a photograph of Batebi appeared on the cover of the "Economist." These two individuals were subject to torture, according to a 5 December report from the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran, as were a number of others who were arrested after the July protests that rocked Iran. An internet campaign protesting these death sentences was organized (http://www.iran-daneshjoo.org/urgentaction/), but on 19 December the SMCCDI announced that news of Batebi's death sentence was false.

Also commenting on what happened to the students in July, East Azerbaijan Province Governor-General Yahya Mohammadzadeh said that in Tabriz they had been rounded up in mass arrests, "Asr-i Azadegan" reported on 15 December. "We wonder why those involved in the attack on the university have not been arrested and punished yet," he asked.

Anger over such developments was seen during a student gathering on 13 December. Afshari of the pro-Khatami student group which is called the Office for Strengthening Unity told the crowd, "We have kept our silence to avoid creating tensions but the illegalities are continuing," DPA news agency reported. The approximately 4000 students also protested the imprisonment of Hojatoleslams Abdullah Nuri and Mohsen Kadivar.

All the same, many Iranian students still support President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. This was demonstrated when he addressed them on 12 December, having missed a previously scheduled Student Day (7 December) speech. About 15,000 people were at Tehran's Science and Technology University to listen to Khatami. He told his supporters "We need the active participation of students on the political scene," and "If we want to achieve freedom and independence, this can only be done by the active participation of the people," according to Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi.

In a later question-and-answer session, one observer reported, Khatami said "If you want to attain something, you must give martyrs." This seemed to answer questions about the fate of Khatami's ally, Abdullah Nuri, recently convicted to five years in jail.

While martyrdom is important in Shia Islam, Imam Hussein did not die alone. This fact, when contrasted with Khatami's statements and his refusal to criticize the Special Court for the Clergy, led to some questions about his commitment. An unsigned article in the 14 December "Payam-i Azadi" asked: "Has

As Khatami spoke, hardline students chanting "Death to America" were shouted down by reformist students. Khatami's speech, however, had a decidedly anti-American tone: "When we say that there exists a high wall of mistrust between us and America, it is not a mere slogan. The Iranian nation feels that Americans have dominated our destiny, at least, from 28th Mordad 1332 [19th August 1953] until now. Doesn't this nation have the right to blame all the losses, lives lost, damages inflicted, and humiliation and insult that the nation has been subjected to, on the incorrect American policy?"

Statements like this merely perpetuate a tradition of blaming outsiders for Iran's shortcomings. Saying this to a group of students who must soon contend with Iran's high unemployment rate, furthermore, smacks of rationalizing the country's problems and seeking scapegoats. But after their extensive participation in the 1997 presidential campaign and in light of their actions in July 1999, it is clear that Iran's students and young people will play a decisive role in the February 2000 parliamentary elections. (Bill Samii)

HUMAN RIGHTS PROGRESS SLOW IN IRAN. On Friday, 10 December, the international community commemorated the 51st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Releasing its annual report one day earlier, Human Rights Watch said events this year marked the beginning of a new era for fighting abuses of fundamental freedoms worldwide.

Positive developments in Iran's human rights situation, according to the HRW report, include the August announcement by a group of prominent writers, editors, publishers, and journalists regarding the formation of the Association to Protect Press Freedom. Although it is not officially recognized, it is able to function. Also, the government registered the National Association for Children's Rights in Iran.

Overall, however, progress in human rights is "held hostage" by the "increasingly polarized conflict within the leadership of the Islamic Republic," the report noted. Also, efforts to reform the situation sometimes worsen it. Political participation still is restricted to "supporters of the clerical regime." The report was particularly critical of press repression and the violence surrounding the July demonstrations. Also, there are "credible reports that use of torture remained widespread."

Religious issues continue to be a serious problem, according to the report. In November 1998, police raided facilities used by the Bahai Institute for Higher Education, which taught Bahais who do not have access to regular universities and colleges. As a result of this raid, 35 members of the faculty were detained and four received jail sentences of three to ten years. And 13 Jews have been arrested on charges of spying for Israel.

A vehicle for persecuting prominent members of the Shia majority who question the political system is the Special Court for the Clergy. According to the HRW report, the range of offenses brought before the Special Court increased this year. In March, for example, the Special Court "ruled that it would prosecute any newspaper that even mentioned the name of Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri," and in February, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar was tried before the Special Court for his journalistic writings. (Bill Samii)

SPECIAL COURT FOR THE CLERGY CRITICIZED. At a Shiraz rally in support of the Special Court for the Clergy, an unnamed speaker warned: "The ultimate aim of the revolution's ill-wishers is that there should be no � Special Court for the Clergy," "Kayhan" reported on 7 December. Renewed debate over the legitimacy of the Special Court was one of the outcomes of Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri's trial. The spring 1999 trial of Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar also elicited debate about the Special Court.

Guardians Council spokesman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati defended the Special Court in his sermon at the 3 December Tehran Friday Prayers. "The Special Court for the Clergy is not contrary to the constitution," and "[it] was accepted and established by the Imam [Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini]. � Its verdicts are extremely decisive and rational." He went on to say that Special Court ensures that clerics are not above the law.

Two days later, according to IRNA, the Special Court's chief, Hojatoleslam Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei also spoke out in its defense. Mohseni-Ejei said that Articles 4, 5, 55, 107, and 110 of the constitution establish the court as a legal body. Furthermore, the court's legitimacy is derived from Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Hojatoleslam Bahrami, deputy head of the Judicial Organization of the Armed Forces, said the Special Court is "fully legal," as are its verdicts. "It cannot be illegal," he said, because its was formed on Khomeini's orders and backed by Khamenei, IRNA reported on 6 December.

International human rights organizations, however, are less sanguine about the Special Court's legality. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights notes, for example, that the court violates Article19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds." And a 1997 Amnesty International report said: "The extraordinary nature of this court violates international human rights standards which provide the right for people to be tried by ordinary courts using established judicial procedures."

At least some Iranians share that perspective. On hearing the court's verdict against him, Nuri said: "Since I do not deem the Special Court for the Clergy to be a legal body, I do not care about the opinion of this unlawful court and its jury" (see RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 November 1999). Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, while not questioning the Special Court's legitimacy, said he agreed with Nuri that it is not qualified to deal with press offenses, IRNA reported on 29 November.

Ayatollah Seyyed Hussein Musavi-Tabrizi, Kadivar's lawyer and formerly the chief prosecutor, told the 8 November "Arya" that when Khomeini appointed the Special Court (in June 1987) it was appropriate for the time and circumstances, but it no longer is. It was Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri who wrote special laws for the court after Khomeini's death, Musavi-Tabrizi said, and Khamenei who approved them.

During Kadivar's trial, editorials in many newspapers, such as "Sobh-i Imruz," "Khordad," and the provincial "Payam-i Zanjan" pointed out, from a constitutional perspective, that the existence of the Special Court is now inadmissible. But it seems likely that the Special Court will continue its activities as more and more senior clerics challenge the way Iran is governed in the name of Islam. (Bill Samii)

THE CLERGY, THE STATE, AND CORRUPTION. The Special Court for the Clergy is charged with investigating cases of corruption, unlawful acts involving clerics, "accusations that are incompatible with the status of the clergy," and crimes that affect the reputation of the clergy. The court can try laymen when clerics are involved, too. Special Court chief Hojatoleslam Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei, however, ignores malfeasances committed by those with whom he is financially involved or politically sympathetic. And the Guardians Council's recent rejection of aspects of the Third Development Plan indicates that such problems are system-wide.

Before coming to the Special Court, Mohseni-Ejei was the judge in the high-profile corruption case of Fazel Khodadad and Morteza Rafiqdust (brother of Mohsen Rafiqdust, former chief of the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation). Khodadad was found guilty of misappropriating several billion rials and sentenced to death. It was not clear how Khodadad, a low-level employee, would have access to so much money, until the identity of his cohort was revealed. Khodadad was executed, while Rafiqdust received a life-sentence. Without the participation of Rafiqdust, the 12 August "Neshat" asked, would the theft of so much money have been possible, and if so, why the discrepancy in sentences?

Mohseni-Ejei was the judge in the corruption trial of former Tehran Mayor Gholamhussein Karbaschi. How is it, Akbar Ganji asks in the 13 December "Asr-i Azadegan," that Karbaschi was imprisoned for financial improprieties, while the clerics associated with the case went unpunished? When the Fatemieh Foundation (Center for Supervising Tehran Mosques), which is run by Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, wanted to build a shopping arcade in Tehran, the original cost was 24 billion rials. But Mahdavi-Kani pressured Karbaschi into forgiving 21 billion rials of the purchase price, and another 3 billion rials is unaccounted for.

Mohseni-Ejei was the Revolutionary Court's representative in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. At that time, he lived in a building owned by Akbar Khoshkush, an MOIS employee now being held in connection with the killings of political dissidents. During Mohseni-Ejei's watch as representative to the MOIS, Khoshkush was implicated in a scandal involving the illegal import and sale of mobile telephones. During the hearings relating to that case, it was revealed that Khoshkush used money from the mobile phone deal to construct the building, yet Khoshkush was not prosecuted. This also raises the question of how an MOIS official was allowed to participate in such financial transactions.

Incidentally, Mohseni-Ejei's neighbors in the building were MOIS officials Said Emami and Mustafa Kazemi, two other suspects in the murders of dissidents.

It is not just the example of Mohseni-Ejei that demonstrates the reluctance of high-level officials to risk their financial interests. Iran's Guardians Council recently rejected several articles of the Third Development Plan proposed by President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's government. The rejected articles include those that proposed eliminating monopolies in banking, telecommunications, and the aviation industry. The Guardians Council said the articles were rejected because they contradicted Article 44 of the constitution, according to the 13 December "Hamshahri." Article 44 states that these and several other industries, including foreign trade, "will be publicly owned and administered by the state."

The rejection of these aspects of the bill may have less to do with the constitution than with the personal financial interests of senior figures in the Iranian government and those close to them. Speaking at a roundtable in December 1998, economic consultant Ali Mazrui suggested that such people are using their positions to pursue economic windfalls, rather than profits for their firms. Another economic consultant, Said Leylaz, recalled a conversation with an Iran Air official who wanted to privatize some parts of the national airline but could not do so because he feared a factional backlash.

Iran's current economy, because of Article 44, favors the state sector heavily. The concessions that go to such firms give them a distinct advantage over the private sector. Most conservative political figures have direct financial relationships with the para-statal foundations, so they will not favor increased competition and a leveling of the playing field. Furthermore, the bazaaris who support conservatives also do not favor increased competition.

The vested interests of high-ranking officials, therefore, shows that they have a strong interest in maintaining the economic status quo. And with individuals like Mohseni-Ejei serving in the judicial apparatus, it seems that justice will not threaten them. (Bill Samii)

NURI APPEAL FACES PROBLEMS. Hojatoleslam Mohsen Rahami, Abdullah Nuri's lawyer, said on 8 December that his client will appeal his conviction. It was hoped that this would allow Nuri to register for and compete in the February parliamentary election. Events since then, plus the actual rules of the Special Court for the Clergy, which convicted Nuri, make a successful appeal, as well as Nuri's standing in the election, seem very unlikely.

Initially, Nuri said he would not appeal because he did not accept the Special Court's legitimacy. Special Court chief Hojatoleslam Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei explained, according to the 6 December "Sobh-i Imruz:" "When the verdict was announced, Mr. Nuri was present along with his lawyer and he declared that he had no objections to the verdict. Therefore, he cannot change his mind." This seemed to rule out an appeal. But state broadcasting quoted Mohseni-Ejei as saying on 6 December that Nuri had until 17 December to appeal.

Rahami said on 11 December that he will seek the immediate release of Nuri pending the appeal, leading observers to say that the appeal was aimed at getting Nuri's name on the ballot for the February 18 parliamentary polls. A temporary release was rejected, however.

The grounds for appealing Special Court verdicts are unclear. Verdicts are binding unless the judge admits making a mistake, the prosecutor contradicts the verdict, or the presiding judge is declared incompetent. In such cases, the case can be re-tried by a different judge. This could lead to the case being heard multiple times until an unchallenged verdict is reached. According to a 1997 Amnesty International report: "there appears to be an extremely limited scope for review of verdicts by this court, and the defendant appears to have no right to appeal to a higher tribunal for a review of his or her conviction and sentence."

Even if the appeal is successful, the Guardians Council can disallow Nuri's candidacy. An amendment to the electoral law, approved in August, gives the Guardians Council the supervisory task in every stage of the parliamentary elections, including determination of candidates' qualifications. Qualification for candidacy requires, according to the amended election law, practical commitment to Islam and the Islamic system, and loyalty to the constitution and rule by the Supreme Jurisconsult. Nuri was sentenced to five years in prison after being tried on charges of, among other things, reporting lies and waging propaganda against the system, insulting Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his views, publishing reports contrary to religious principles, and insulting religious sanctities. (Bill Samii)

RAFSANJANI REGISTERS TO RUN. Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri was touted as the likely speaker of the next parliament. With his unavailability for the election, and with reports that the current speaker, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri, will not stand, it now seems that the way is clear for Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. But Hashemi-Rafsanjani is not acceptable to all factions, particularly reformists.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who was speaker before becoming president in 1989, registered for next year's parliamentary election on 15 December. He said the objective of his candidacy is to "bring about national solidarity in the parliament and help promote government programs," IRNA reported. Earlier reports about Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy were welcomed by Habibollah Asgaroladi-Mosalman, secretary-general of the hardline Islamic Coalition Association, who described Hashemi-Rafsanjani as an "ultra-factional" figure, according to IRNA on 11 December.

Others hardliners, such as Masud Dehnamaki, editor of the weekly "Jebheh," and parliamentarian Ali Movahedi-Savoji ("Sobh-i Imruz," 8 November; "Asr-i Azadegan," 9 November) also encouraged Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy..

Enthusiasm about Hashemi-Rafsanjani is not whole-hearted, particularly in the 2nd Khordad movement, a coalition of pro-Khatami groups. According to an observer at the 12 December speech by President Mohammad Khatami, students were chanting "Political Development Cannot be With Hashemi!" Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organisation spokesman Mohsen Armin said, according to the 11 December "Manateq-i Azad," "Among Hashemi-Rafsanjani's serious rivals is [Hojatoleslam Mohammad Asqar] Musavi-Khoeniha, and I believe that he has a good chance of becoming the speaker of the sixth parliament if he takes part in the elections." The Special Court for the Clergy, however, found Musavi-Khoeniha guilty of spreading fabrications, disturbing public opinion, and publishing classified documents in August, although his imprisonment and flogging were suspended.

Others who were unenthusiastic about Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy were Abbas Abdi of the Islamic Iran Participation Party ("Asr-i Azadegan," 17 November), parliamentarian Alireza Mahjoub of the Islamic Labor Party ("Entekhab," 11 November), and former Deputy Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ahmad Burqani, who was known as a defender of press freedom ("Sobh-i Imruz," 11 November).

In November the different factions were putting forward their lists of (often shared) candidates, and the two main clerical political groups had held joint meetings to demonstrate their "unity." The discussion on Hashemi-Rafsanjani, however, indicates a factional split that threatens a decisive result in the February elections. And the Guardians Council's history of disallowing the candidacy of those who are insufficiently hardline, combined with recent reports about the factionalized nature of election supervisory bodies in the provinces, reinforces such expectations. (Bill Samii)

PROBLEMS WITH MUNICIPAL COUNCILS. A number of people elected to the municipal councils in Tehran and other cities in February have resigned so they can be eligible for the February 2000 parliamentary elections. But conflicts over the weak legislation which defines the councils' actual powers may result in more resignations.

The need for councils is specified in the constitution, but their actual duties and powers are not clearly defined. In Tehran, this has led to the resignation of Abbas Duzduzani, who succeeded Hojatoleslam Abdullah Nuri as head of the Tehran council. A gentleman named Vaezi, reputedly a hardliner, is in charge of the municipal Culture and Arts Organization. Duzduzani, however, prefers Mehdi Argani for the position. The Tehran council believes it has the power to select the Culture and Arts Organization's chief.

What this boils down to is control of "Hamshahri" the high-circulation daily affiliated with Tehran municipality. This publication will be a useful tool for publicizing reformist candidates' parliamentary campaigns. Tehran Mayor Morteza Alviri said, according to the 8 December "Iran Vij," that Vaezi's appointment is illegal. Council member Said Hajjarian added that other members of the Tehran municipal council may resign if Vaezi stays.

There also are disagreements over the time council-members are expected to spend at their jobs. Hajjarian pointed out that the work is unpaid, but for many council-members it takes up all their time.

In other cities, the issue of councils' authority also is causing problems. Reza Loqmanian, head of the Hamedan municipal council, said that the governors-general and the mayors no longer have authority in certain daily municipal affairs, but their responsibilities and authority have not been turned over to the councils yet. He added, IRNA reported on 8 November, that although the public had great expectations, the councils have "too little authority to proceed with their tasks."

There is no formal way for the public to communicate its "great expectations" to its elected representatives, the Shiraz daily "Nim-Negah" pointed out in August, and conversely, the council members have difficulty in explaining "the limits of their authority." The daily predicted that the council will be confronted with demands for help in settling "family and tribal feuds, "employment disputes," and "name changes."

Problems stemming from the lack of council-related legislation were foreseen (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 1 March 1999). The national government is aware of this, too. During a visit to Isfahan in August, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said "revision of the present laws of the Islamic city/village councils are among priorities of the Interior Ministry," according to IRNA. He "stressed that more time is needed to find out the deficiencies and shortcomings of the councils' law," and he expressed the hope that the new parliament will draft the relevant legislation. (Bill Samii)

NO WAY OUT? Discussing a parliamentary motion granting amnesty to exiled Iranians, Mahmud Kalantari, director general of the Passport Department, said returnees would be banned from leaving the country, "Iran News" reported on 13 December. The daily suggested that Kalantari's idea contradicts the whole concept of an amnesty. The first reading of the bill was passed on 15 December, and it now will be examined more closely by the parliament. (Bill Samii)

RUSSIAN-IRANIAN BORDER? Konstantin Totsky, Director of Russia's Federal Border Guard Service, was in Tehran from 19-22 November, at which time he met with officials from Iran's Interior Ministry. Totsky and Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari signed a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation against drug trafficking and illegal immigration. "Russia is going to assist the Iranians in technical maintenance of the border between the two countries," official RIA Novosti news agency reported on 18 November. The only problem is that Russia and Iran do not share a common border. (Bill Samii)

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