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Iran Report: July 16, 2007

Iran: Stoning Of Convicted Man Draws Strong Reactions

By Golnaz Esfandiari

An Iranian woman is buried up to her chest before being stoned to death, thought to have taken place some 20 years ago (file photo)

July 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations, Western governments, and human-rights groups have strongly condemned the stoning of an alleged adulterer that was carried out in Iran last week.

Meanwhile, reports from Iran say the country's judiciary has launched a probe into the judge who ordered that Jafar Kiani be stoned to death.

The grim sentence of Jafar Kiani has prompted a wave of international condemnation and also reactions by human-rights activists and others inside Iran.

Rights activists believe that in order to prevent such incidents in the future and to root out stoning in Iran the sentence should be removed from Iranian laws.

Kiani was stoned to death on July 5 in a small village in northern Iran. He had been convicted of adultery and had spent the past 11 years in prison.

UN Condemnation

Many have described his stoning as "inhumane" and "barbaric."

UN human rights chief Louise Arbour condemned the execution, saying that "stoning is in clear violation of international law." She called on Iran to stop the stoning of Kiani's partner, Mokarameh Ebrahimi, who is reportedly in jail with the couple's two children.

A top dissident cleric in Iran told Radio Farda that Kiani's stoning was carried out against Islamic principles.

According to Islamic laws applied in Iran, the punishment for adultery is death by stoning. It is allowed to be proved through evidence such as a confession or a "judge's knowledge."

Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who is a prominent Iranian source of emulation, said in a written statement faxed in response to an inquiry by Radio Farda that adultery is very difficult to prove under Islamic laws. He says adultery can be proven only if it is witnessed by four people who had seen the act with their own eyes, adding that such a thing is almost impossible.

Damaging Islam's Reputation?

Montazeri also writes that if the accused retracts his or her confession then that person should be able to go free.

He adds that if "at a certain time and location" the implementation of the sentence would damage Islam's reputation then it should be prevented. The dissident ayatollah added that, in fact, stoning sentences are a tool to create fear and prevent people from committing sin.

Kiani's stoning was carried out despite a reported 2002 moratorium on stoning by the head of Iran's judiciary, Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi.

His execution also came two weeks after international and domestic pressure made local officials delay carrying out the sentence against him and his partner, Ebrahimi.

Ebrahimi's sentence has reportedly been suspended.

Judge Investigated

On July 11, Iran's ISNA news agency quoted an unnamed official from the judiciary as saying that the judges' disciplinary court will investigate the action carried out by the local judge, which was contrary to the order of judiciary chief Shahrudi.

Rights activists believe that in order to prevent such incidents in the future and to root out stoning in Iran the sentence should be removed from Iranian laws.

Among them is Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who in an interview with Radio Farda expressed serious concern over the stoning of Kiani.

"We've been telling the judiciary for years now that if the respected head of the judiciary is against carrying out stoning sentences then the solution is very simple: he should write two sentences, propose it as a law to the parliament and -- since the parliament is totally on his side -- it will adopt it," she said.

But the judiciary has so far ignored such demands and activists say in the past five years stoning sentences have been issued to alleged adulterers. One case of a stoning of a man and a woman was reported in 2006.

Online Reaction

Kiani's stoning has also led to strong reactions among visitors to the Radio Farda website.

Mohammad Bagher Abbasi from Bushehr writes that proving that adultery has taken place is "impossible" under Islamic laws. Therefore, he said, whenever someone is executed by stoning there should be no doubt that Islam was not respected.

Mohammad from Esfahan believes that the implementation of Islamic sentences can prevent evil and mischief.

An unnamed visitor has written that Kiani's stoning proves that Iranian "mullahs" are worse than Taliban members and that if they are not confronted they could ban women from studying.

Kamran from Tehran describes stoning as inhumane and cruel, yet he adds that the leaders of Iran should be stoned because he believes "they are infected with sin."

Most of the visitors have, however, written in their postings that the practice of stoning does not belong in today's world.

(Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

Iran: Vexed Government Lashes Out At Media 'Poison'

By Vahid Sepehri
July 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is increasingly impatient with what it sees as a front of unjustified criticism in the media. It has impugned critics as motivated by either domestic political grudges or the discreet machinations of foreign powers.

The sum of reports in recent days gives the impression of a government exasperated by -- but intent on defending itself against -- malevolent verbal attacks from various quarters.

Culture Minister Mohammad Saffar-Herandi on July 8 accused unspecified newspapers and other media of mounting a "creeping" coup against the Ahmadinejad government.

His warning came amid reports that Iranian intelligence had caught a number of spies in western Iran, and with tensions high over at least four Iranian-Americans who are facing subversion and related charges.

Prominent Tehran-based journalist and press activist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda on July 8 that governments habitually seek to blame someone "outside their own circle" for their failures, and the press in Iran seems the most accessible target.

The reformist daily "Aftab-i Yazd" observed on July 9 that there have been many more denunciations of critics by officials recently than expressions of sympathy with ordinary Iranians facing difficult economic conditions.

Blame The Messenger

Minister Saffar-Herandi's charge is not unprecedented -- officials have accused unspecified opponents of conspiracies, spying, or large-scale corruption before. It appears to be a response to public expressions of dissatisfaction by politicians and prominent public figures regarding the government's economic and public-administration performance since its inception in 2005.

The minister is furthermore not the only official to denounce perceived subversion or hostility. Fars News Agency reported on July 7 that presidential press aide, Mohammad Jafar Behdad, said Ahmadinejad's office would not sit quietly much longer as a "political and economic" gang spread "poison" and "black and unhealthy propaganda" against his government and pursued what it called "daily plots."

Prominent Tehran-based journalist and press activist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told Radio Farda on July 8 that governments habitually seek to blame someone "outside their own circle" for their failures, and the press in Iran seems the most accessible target. Some observers might wonder where such overly critical -- never mind "subversive" -- press is, given the number of newspapers shut down by the judiciary during and since the reformist administration of then-President Mohammad Khatami in the late 1990s.

Most recently, the judiciary withdrew the publishing license for one reformist daily, "Mosharekat," that reflected the views of the reformist Participation Front and had been suspended for several years. It also suspended another daily, "Ham Mihan," that was run by a former Tehran mayor with ties to ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and had been banned once before.

Judiciary authorities have also blocked the website for the labor-affiliated news agency ILNA. The agency had faced unspecified pressures for its coverage of student and labor unrest in recent months, according to Radio Farda on July 8. An unnamed judiciary official was quoted as saying the agency had faced many complaints and the website was blocked to prevent "the repetition of offenses," ISNA reported on July 11.

Activist journalist Shamsolvaezin observed that the government could defend itself through various sympathetic media outlets. He said such outlets include IRNA news agency and "Iran" newspaper, which reflect the executive branch's views while reporting news, right-wing dailies like "Kayhan" and "Resalat," and state television and radio, a generally conservative state institution. Shamsolvaezin argued that there are no "independent" media, as government officials cite, but at best "semi-independent" media that are "themselves subject to suppression, threats, closure, or self-censorship." Shamsolvaezin said that the government cannot tolerate even these outlets, arguably underscoring its own ineffectiveness.

Right-wing journalist Abbas Salimi-Namin disputed Shamsolvaezin's view in remarks published in the daily "Etemad" on July 10. Salimi-Namin said he thinks the government is lashing out precisely because it "is very weak in terms of media backing and use of media instruments," adding that such "weakness may be the reason why [the government] takes such a harsh view of press criticisms."

Lawmakers Weigh In

Salimi-Namin said some reformist papers have been consistently "unfair" in their criticisms of the Ahmadinejad government and that their reporting suggests a refusal to recognize Iran's elected government. He cited examples of such hostility -- reformist dailies like "Ham Mihan" and "Sharq" publishing similar-looking headlines some days, hinting that "clearly the two work in coordination." Why, Salimi-Namin asked, have such dailies not given credit to the Ahmadinejad government's foreign-policy achievements, such as improved ties in Latin America, which he called "beneficial" for Iran?

Saffar-Herandi's remarks provoked reactions from legislators. Mohammad Ali Moqnian, a member of the parliamentary Social Affairs Committee, urged the media to stand together in the face of "the pressure of some groups," ISNA reported on July 9. He warned that "pressure and powerful groups" are threatening the press, which they regard as endangering their interests.

A member of the legislature's Culture Committee identified on July 9 by ISNA only as Soruri, said with some optimism that the government should "pave the way for a reduction of pressures on the media" in the run-up to parliamentary elections. The daily "Aftab-i Yazd" observed on July 9 that officials are so busy denouncing domestic enemies and previous administrations that they seemed to be overlooking topics it said were of greater concern to Iranians and Muslims. The paper said such matters include the recent reported mistreatment of Iranian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia and the knighthood bestowed on Salman Rushdie.

Salimi-Namin told "Etemad" that he thinks the ministerial accusation points to government exaggeration of the scope and significance of press criticisms. He said it is unacceptable for a culture minister to use such terms regarding the press, and advised the government to increase its tolerance threshold ahead of parliamentary polls, set for March, which he predicted would be lively.

Iran's present government has shown its fondness for bombastic and provocative remarks, for which it garners considerable attention. Its minister of culture is -- alongside Ahmadinejad and the government's chief spokesman, Gholahussein Elham -- one of its more outspoken members. His accusations might not herald any new round of press restrictions, however, if only because such restrictions seem to exist on an ongoing basis and began before the arrival of the Ahmadinejad administration. But they might represent both an effort to justify government hostility to domestic critics -- who are presented as assailants, not dissidents -- and be part of moves that reformists fear are intended to discredit their forces enough to assure their disqualification before parliamentary elections.

Under such circumstances, this recent verbal attack might be regarded as part of the government's own creeping coup against future electoral rivals.

Profile: Iranian Union Leader Mansur Osanlu

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Mansur Osanlu addressing a London audience in June 2007

July 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Mansur Osanlu is the 49-year-old head of the Syndicate Workers of Tehran Bus Company.

Osanlu has led the union for two years and has reportedly helped to reorganize and reactivate the union -- which is not legally recognized by the Iranian government.

But he has paid a high price for his involvement in the union.

Because of his trade-union activities, Osanlu has been subjected to pressure by the Iranian authorities, who have detained, summoned him to court, and jailed him several times over the last 18 months.

Osanlu was first detained in December 2005 for organizing a protest action by bus drivers complaining of low pay. He then spent about seven months in Tehran's notorious Evin prison with almost no contact to the outside world.

In January 2006, bus drivers and union activists planned a strike to call for his release and also press for other demands, including a pay increase. But on the eve of the planned strike the Iranian government preemptively detained hundreds of bus drivers and several members of the union's executive committee.

In July 2006, dozens of rights activists in Iran and elsewhere went on a three-day hunger strike to call for his unconditional release as well as the release of other Iranian citizens who are held because of their peaceful activities or opinions not tolerated by Iranian officials.

Activists said they decided to highlight Osanlu's case as a symbol of Iran's workers' movement, which is under increasing state pressure.

Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, also called for his release.

Many Iranian rights activists and intellectuals issued a statement in his support.

Osanlu was finally freed in the summer of 2006 after posting a bail of about $165,000.

However, state pressure on him continued.

Osanlu was detained by officials several times, including in November 2006, when he was taken away from a Tehran street by plainclothes security agents who were reportedly from Iran's Intelligence Ministry.

He was put on trial in February 2007.

Charges brought against Osanlu included "engaging in publicity against Iran's government" and acting against domestic security.

He however told Radio Farda that authorities have turned a "simple trade union and workers' case" into a "security matter."

His July 10 abduction set off alarms among human rights groups and organizations defending union rights.

Two days later officials told his family that he is jailed in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

The reason for his rearrest and jailing is not clear.

But some observers believe it could be because of his recent trip to Europe. During his visit, Osanlu described the government's pressure and harassment against him and other workers.

Osanlu was quoted, however, as saying that he will not be intimidated.

Radio Farda Journalist Covers Stories Tehran Tries To Suppress

By Ron Synovitz

Radio Farda's Roozbeh Bolhari

July 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An Iranian journalist who joined Radio Farda in Prague 18 months ago says he has more freedom to cover stories about Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's economic policies than journalists who remain in Iran.

It was about 6:30 in the evening on July 10 when Radio Farda broadcaster Roozbeh Bolhari received a call on his mobile phone in his Prague office.

The caller was in Tehran -- a labor activist from the Syndicate Workers of Tehran Bus Company who was concerned about the fate of the union's director, Mansur Osanlu.

"Ahmadinejad's government is putting more pressure on Iranian media to prevent them from covering the economic problems in Iran, or even from covering strikes by workers there," Bolhari says.

Less than an hour earlier, the caller explained, Osanlu had been abducted from a public bus less than 200 meters from his home. The abductors were four armed men in plainclothes who claimed they were police officers arresting a thief.

Osanlu pleaded for help from other passengers, shouting out his name and his role as the leader of a genuinely independent trade union -- a labor organization that the Iranian government refuses to recognize. Four witnesses on the bus reported the abduction to police and to Osanlu's family.

Bolhari knew Osanlu from his work covering economic issues in Iran. He quickly confirmed the abduction with phone calls to Osanlu's wife and other members of the independent trade union.

Iranian police were treating the case as a "criminal" investigation -- a classification that Bolhari says could allow them to later deny any government involvement.

Soon, Radio Farda's story was being broadcast into Iran -- one of the first reports by any of the world's media about the case.

Experienced Eye

The 44-year-old Bolhari has been working at Radio Farda's Prague offices for the past 18 months.

Before that, he worked for 17 years as a journalist inside Iran -- including work for the official "Iran" newspaper under reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and as an economic correspondent and international news editor for about a dozen reformist newspapers that all were shut down by Iran's conservative judiciary.

Bolhari says government intimidation and censorship against journalists in Iran makes it harder to report on the country's economic problems from inside the country than from abroad. He says that's because President Ahmadinejad's administration suppresses reports about perceived failures of economic policy.

"This is a big problem in Iran," Bolhari explains. "Thousands of workers have been dismissed in recent years, and they also have been fired from their jobs because of the economic crisis in Iran and the economic policies of Ahmadinejad's government."

"Ahmadinejad's government is putting more pressure on Iranian media to prevent them from covering the economic problems in Iran, or even from covering strikes by workers there," Bolhari says. "The government is suppressing these stories, filtering information and blocking information altogether."

Official Fear?

Bolhari says that as a broadcaster with Radio Farda, he has been able to report on several recent strikes in Iran that united thousands of workers. Authorities in Tehran had prevented stories about the stoppages from being published or broadcast by Iranian-based media.

"Ahmadinejad's government is afraid of stories about thousands of striking Iranian workers," Bolhari says. "Ahmadinejad's government knows very well that such stories will encourage more strikes. And it will be hard to punish demonstrators when their numbers grow in the thousands."

"They are afraid that ordinary workers are being transformed into political activists because of the difficult economic situation," Bolhari says. "When a worker doesn't have enough money or food for their family, he or she will blame the government's policies. And the problems will be transformed from an economic crisis to a political crisis that threatens the stability of the government itself."

Bolhari says he thinks the abduction of Osanlu also is an example of Ahmadinejad's government using intimidation and harassment to prevent ordinary Iranians from going into the streets to protest their worsening economic situation.

In the past, the Iranian government has detained hundreds of drivers from Osanlu's union to prevent them from carrying out planned strikes. Osanlu also has been imprisoned three times for his role as a leader of an independent union.

Osanlu also told Bolhari in interviews that he has faced beatings and harassment from Iranian security agents because of his work.

Iran: Radio Farda -- Union Leader's Abduction Highlights Crackdown On Labor Protests

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Police in Tehran at a workers' demonstration (file photo)

July 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian authorities have admitted that a prominent Iranian Union leader who was abducted on July 10 is being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

Mansur Osanlu was pulled from a bus in Tehran two days ago by unidentified men who yelled at the passengers to stay away and called him a "thug." They then forced him into a car and drove away.

Eyewitnesses say Osanlu -- the director of the Syndicate Workers of the Tehran Bus Company -- was beaten severely and that his attackers continued to beat him after they stuffed him into the car.

In recent months dozens of workers and union activists who participated in protest actions have been harassed, detained, summoned to court, and even jailed.

MORE: Coverage in Persian from Radio Farda.

Sent To Evin

His family and friends had sought to find out where he was. But all the authorities they contacted denied they were holding him.

Ebrahim Madadi, the deputy director of Osanlu's union, spoke to Radio Farda shortly after the incident.

"In the continuation of our search we -- Osanlu's wife, brother, and me -- went to the Narmak police station and from there we went to the public safety police and to a revolutionary court on Moalem Street," Madadi said. "Unfortunately we didn't obtain any news [about Osanlu]."

The situation had led to growing concern about the fate of the union leader.

Finally, on July 12, an official from Evin prison informed Osanlu’s family that he is jailed there.

Osanlu’s wife told Radio Farda that officials admitted that her husband was being held in Evin only after she and her relatives gathered in front of the prison for several hours and insisted on being given information about his whereabouts.

She said: "Finally the guards made a phone call and sent me inside. I spoke to someone on the phone who told me ‘Osanlu is here.' I said 'how can I be sure?' He said: ’I am an official here you have to accept that he is here.’ I said 'can he speak to us for a minute?' The official said he is not allowed to have visits nor to make phone calls."

Even before that, many had believed that Osanlu was in the custody of Iranian authorities.

The International Transport Federation (ITF) said in a July 11 statement that given the past history of treatment of Osanlu -- he has repeatedly been arrested, prosecuted, and jailed since December 2005 for his union activities -- there is a strong reason to believe that an agency of the Iranian government is responsible for the abduction.

On July 12, ITF General-Secretary David Cockroft said that his organization will campaign with "renewed vigour" for Osanlu’s release.

The Paris-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders has also expressed its deep concern for the safety of Osanlu and said that it and fears that his abduction might be directly linked to his trade-union activities.

Abdolfatah Soltani is a member of Tehran's Center for Human Rights Defenders. He told Radio Farda that Osanlu's treatment is an example of growing state pressure on critics and student activists and workers.

"By creating fear [the authorities] want to prevent the activities and silence of all those who criticize their performance," Soltani said. "But we all know that it is not possible to destroy an idea by force, it is not possible to control all people by force."

Iranian labor leader Mansur Osanlu in London last month

In recent months dozens of workers and union activists who participated in protest actions have been harassed, detained, summoned to court, and even jailed.

Radio Farda reports that on July 10, 11 workers who had participated in a May 1 protest were put on trial by a court in Sanandaj, in Kurdistan Province.

Two more workers are due to be tried by the same court on July 14.

Meanwhile, the website of Iran's ILNA news agency -- which had been under government pressure because of its coverage of workers protests -- was blocked on July 11.

The move by the country's judiciary came after it allowed ILNA to resume operations following a weeklong suspension of the agency and the appointment of a new director.

An unnamed judge was quoted by Iranian media as saying the decision to block the website followed "many complaints."

(Radio Farda contributed to this report.)

Iran: Official Word Of Stoning Heightens Concern Over Condemned Mother

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Opponents of the practice say this photo shows the grisly sentence being imposed decades ago in Iran

July 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's judiciary today confirmed that a man convicted of adultery has been stoned to death in a northern province west of the capital, Tehran.

Jafar Kiani was stoned to death in a small village in the province of Qazvin. He was in his late 40s and had spent the last decade in prison after the adultery conviction.

He is the latest casualty of strict Islamic laws as applied since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

The grim sentence came despite a five-year-old moratorium on stonings that rights groups fear is sometimes ignored.

Activists are warning that his partner -- who reportedly was jailed at the same time, 11 years ago -- could face a similar fate.

The Stop Stoning Forever Campaign broke the news of Kiani's death on July 8, while the reformist "Etemad" daily and other news sources reported the next day that the stoning had been carried out.

'Definitive' Sentence

An Iranian judiciary spokesman, Alireza Jamshidi, today confirmed that the stoning took place in the village of Aghche Kand, adding that the verdict was implemented because it was "definitive."

The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi, declared a moratorium on stonings in 2002.

Iran's Nobel Peace Prize winner, rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, argued to Radio Farda that the practice contravenes human rights principles.

"I'm very regretful that the stoning sentence was carried out, because this sentence is not in line with Iran's international commitment -- and moreover [the head of Iran's judiciary] has issued several rulings that stoning sentences should not be carried out," Ebadi said.

Scant Protection

Judiciary spokesman Jamshidi claimed today that the policy on stoning has not changed, but he added that judges can act independently.

The stonings of Kiani and his partner, Mokarameh Ebrahimi, had been scheduled to take place on June 21. But they were delayed in the face of Iranian and international protests.

On June 20, a judiciary official was quoted by Iran's Fars News Agency as saying that the stoning sentence in Takestan had been suspended. That announcement was welcomed by human rights activists, who have repeatedly called on Iran to remove stoning as a form of punishment from its books. (Read Iran's law on adultery.)

But the recent news of Kiani's stoning has raised alarm and outraged activists and rights advocates who consider stoning among the cruelest of punishments.

It is also a gory spectacle. Condemned men are buried up to their waists, and women up to their chests, with their hands tied behind their backs before they are pelted with rocks until they die. Islamic code prescribes that the stone used for stoning "should not be so big as to kill the offender with one or two stones" and "nor should it be as small as pebbles." (Read Iran's law on the implementation of stoning.)

Condemned Parents

Soheila Vahdati is the international coordinator of the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign. She tells RFE/RL that there is now growing concern about the fate of Ebrahimi, who was convicted along with Kiani and is apparently still in prison.

"It is very worrying that the sentence was carried out despite all the protests from all over the world that were heard by the judiciary and Iran's authorities," Vahdati said. "We've been [informed] that both of them were supposed to be stoned but that since Women's Day was celebrated last week in Iran, Mokarameh [Ebrahimi] was not stoned. But it appears that she is also due to be stoned."

The judiciary spokesman has described Ebrahimi's sentence as still "halted."

The Stop Forever Stoning Campaign reports that Ebrahimi and Kiani were arrested 11 years ago while living in what was described as an adulterous relationship. Together they have two children who are believed to live in prison with their condemned mother.

Judiciary Power

According to Islamic law as applied in Iran, eyewitness testimony, a confession, or a judge's knowledge is sufficient evidence for an adultery conviction.

Kiani and Ebrahimi were condemned to death on the basis of a judge's knowledge.

Vahdati says details about Ebrahimi and her children's fate are sketchy.

"Unfortunately we don't have exact reports. Even her lawyer, Said Eghbali, who has been representing her for eight months, has been unable to see her [court] file," Vahdati said. "We don't have enough information about her situation. We know that she has two children who are with her in prison -- we don't know the exact age or sex of the children. But activists from the campaign in Iran are going to investigate and go to Takestan to find firsthand information. They want to do their best to prevent another stoning being carried out secretly."

It is unclear how many stoning sentences have been issued or carried out since the five-year-old moratorium was declared.

Reports in late 2006 suggested that at least two people had been stoned to death earlier in the year and at least eight women faced stoning sentences.

Before today, Iranian officials had denied that any stonings had taken place since 2002. The statements on Kiani's stoning appear to mark the first instance of such an execution being confirmed by Iranian authorities.

Activists who are campaigning for stoning to be abolished in Iran say that Kiani's stoning last week was carried out in public by local officials and security forces. They say only a small number of villagers participated.