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Iran Report: June 17, 2008

Judicial Investigator Detained After Accusing Clerics Of Corruption

By Mohammad Kazemi and Gulnoza Saidazimova

Abbas Palizdar (file photo)

A member of the Iranian parliament's Judicial Inquiry and Review Committee has been arrested after accusing several prominent clerics of corruption and hinting that further revelations were to come.

Authorities have charged Abbas Palizdar -- a supporter of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- with "spreading rumors" and "causing distress among the public."

The arrest comes just days after he publicly accused several prominent ayatollahs and leading members of parliament of pilfering state funds and obtaining favorable business arrangements for their relatives.

In an exclusive interview with Radio Farda on June 9, Palizdar claimed to have proof that top-level politicians -- including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who chairs the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council -- have been involved in illegal deals and criminal acts.

Palizdar also said he planned to reveal more information regarding corruption among the country's political elite.

"I spoke based on documents and evidence [in my possession]," he told Radio Farda. "There are many more cases that I will reveal in the future. Everything that I said -- if [the government] didn't add anything to it -- is based on proof and documents."

The accusations -- unprecedented for Iran -- came in late May in speeches that Palizdar gave at Bu Ali Sina University in the western Iranian city of Hamadan and at Shiraz University, in the southern part of the country.

Palizdar offered details of criminal offenses that he says were committed by several leading politicians and clerics who he claims accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal business deals.

Along with Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Palizdar singled out so-called traditional clerics, including the interim Friday Prayer leader of Tehran, Mohammad Emami Kashani; and the head of the Imam Reza Shrine Foundation, Ayatollah Vaez Tabbasi.

Iranian bloggers published portions of Palizdar's speech and exchanged views on what was an exceptional event for Iran. After the controversial speech, the Bu Ali Sina University's Islamic Society of Students was reportedly shut down.

Some observers say the accusations by Palizdar were an attempt to weaken some the president's rivals ahead of next year's presidential election.

A conservative faction hostile to Ahmadinejad and led by presidential rival and parliament speaker Ali Larijani, has dominated the Iranian parliament, the Majlis.

Others suggest that Palizdar -- who like many other pro-Ahmadinejad candidates was defeated in the last elections to Tehran's City Council -- is trying to gain revenge by making these accusations against his rivals.

Palizdar told Radio Farda that his accusations have "nothing to do with elections."

"I feel they try to give the impression that I'm saying these things because of the elections, but it has nothing to do with elections," Palizdar said. "I had some obligation on behalf of martyrs. It was my religious duty to bring up these things because I had a feeling that the Majlis has no intention to go forward on these issues. So, I did it myself."

Palizdar told Radio Farda that the Majlis had studied his report and sent it to the judiciary to be investigated.

The Majlis has reacted publicly to the claim by saying that Palizdar did not work for the parliament's research center and therefore had not been able to obtain any information regarding corruption.

Under Pressure, Tehran Suspends Juvenile Executions

Iran's judiciary has suspended for one month the execution of two young men sentenced to death for crimes committed before they were 18 after the UN's top human rights official urged authorities not to execute four juvenile offenders.

The decision came hours after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called on Iran to stay the executions "in strict compliance with [Iran's] international human rights obligations."

Behnoud Shojaie and Mohammad Fedaie were among the four condemned men named by Arbour. The fates of the other two men, Said Jazie and Behnam Zareh, remain unclear.

In a statement, the office of the head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi, said the stay of execution was decided in order "to reach an agreement with the victims' families."

Under Islamic Shari'a law, a victim's family can spare a murderer from execution by accepting financial compensation -- so-called blood money. In such cases, the convict pays the money and serves only a prison sentence.

Iranian media reported that Shojaie and Fedaie were believed to have been among 11 convicts to be hanged within Tehran's notorious Evin prison on June 11. Mohammad Mostafai, the two young convicts' lawyer, tells Radio Farda that human rights groups have been putting pressure on Iran to stay their execution.

"We have been writing letters to point out there were doubts and problems in those criminal cases," Mostafai says. "In addition, many human rights activists tried very hard to somehow prevent the executions."

In Iran, murder, adultery, drug trafficking, rape, armed robbery, and apostasy are all punishable by death. In recent years, human rights activists have criticized Iran's growing use of the death penalty, particularly against juvenile offenders.

London-based Amnesty International has listed Iran as the second-most-prolific executioner in the world, with some 317 people put to death last year, after China, which reportedly carried out 470 death sentences.

Iranian officials counter that the country is not violating human rights and accuse the West of double standards.

International rights groups and feminist campaigners inside Iran have also called on Tehran to raise the age of legal responsibility, which deems a girl punishable from the age of 9 and a boy from the age of 15.

Radio Farda correspondent Farin Assemi contributed to this report

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Says Attack Looks 'Unavoidable'

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz (file photo)

Shaul Mofaz, Israel's transport minister and deputy prime minister, has told an Israeli newspaper that an attack on Iran looks "unavoidable" because of the apparent failure of UN sanctions to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

In an interview with the "Yedioth Ahronoth" newspaper to be published on June 8, Mofaz is quoted as saying, "If Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it."

Iran denies that its nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, saying it is for peaceful civilian purposes only.

Asked for a response to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's statement that Israel should be "erased from the map," Mofaz said Ahmadinejad "will disappear before Israel does."

Mofaz is formerly chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and a former Israeli defense minister. His remarks are the most explicit threat yet against Iran from a member of the Israeli government.

Some political observers suggest Mofaz's comments are meant for domestic political consumption. They say Mofaz and other senior members of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party could be preparing to run for the top office in case a corruption scandal forces Olmert to resign.

The Israeli government has never gone on record about specific military plans against Iran. Its official position is that military options must not be ruled out if UN sanctions against Iran are to be effective.

compiled from agency reports

Khamenei Warns Of Western Evils, As Youth Give Views On Ayatollahs

By Farangis Najibullah

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (file photo)

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned that the nation's "enemies" seek to weaken the country's youth by spreading immorality, prostitution, and drug addiction, as young people themselves express their frustration at hard-line social restrictions.

"Combating organized plots that push Iranian youth toward carnal desires, drugs, or sexuality is a prime duty of the Iranian people and especially the young," said Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters in the Islamic republic.

He made his remarks on the 19th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, his predecessor as Iran's supreme leader.

More than 60 percent of Iran's population is under 25 years old, and there are almost 8 million young people eligible to vote. Iran's youth played a vital role in the Islamic Revolution and have demontrated their power to bring change to the political system. Disillusioned with the restrictions the ayatollahs imposed on their lives, young people were instrumental in bringing reformist President Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997.

The potential power of Iran's youth has led Iran's political and religious leaders -- such as Khomeini and Khamenei -- to try to gain the support of the country's younger generation. Khamenei wrote on his official website last month that in a mosque where he used to be the prayer leader, "the youth constituted about 80 percent of the people there, and this was because I always kept in contact with the youth."

The supreme leader even praised Iranian young people as "fashionable" and said they should not be judged by their clothes or physical appearance.

Increasingly Frustrated

Many Iranian youth -- especially in Tehran and other big cities -- have become increasingly frustrated by the social restrictions that hard-liners have brought into their everyday lives. The restrictions are everywhere -- women have to obey an Islamic dress code, music is prohibited, and people are jailed for drinking alcohol.

Mohammad, a young Tehran resident, told RFE/RL that even websites which have nothing to do with politics and Islamic values have been blocked by authorities.

"It's really ridiculous how websites are filtered here," Mohammad said. "Don't think that the authorities have only filtered sex-related sites. No, rules and laws do not apply here. News, music, and photos are all filtered. Until last week, I used to download music from some sites, but now they are blocked, too. They were Iranian music sites."

So-called morality police are stationed in every crowded place in Tehran, and they stop young women who violate a dress code by wearing tight overcoats or skimpy headscarves. Young men are not allowed to wear ties or to get a "funky" hairstyle.

Twenty-four-year-old Sitareh, one of the "dress-code offenders," says she has been detained and fined by the morality police.

"I was stopped in the street because my trousers were slightly short and my ankles were showing," Sitareh said. "Several other women were also detained. We were transported to the police station and police officers called my family. I spent a few hours in the detention center, and they would bring more girls from the streets. The police treated us in a somehow insulting and rude manner."

Sitareh said she has become more careful after the arrest but still pushes "the dress-code boundaries."

Want To Enjoy Their Youth

Mohammad and Sitareh say that, like young people elsewhere in the world, they want to enjoy their youth by dressing the way they like, listening to music, going to parties, dating, or surfing the Internet without having to deal with blocked websites.

In many countries, that's not too much to ask. But in Iran, a young woman who holds hands with a man who is not related to her can get arrested by the morality police, who seem to be increasingly present.

There are many young Iranians -- especially in the provinces -- who genuinely support the country's hard-line leaders. In cities like Qom and Mashhad, even local residents stop and reprimand women whose hijabs do not "sufficiently cover their bodies." Most of them regard Khomeini and Khamenei as iconic figures who are above the law, and everything else.

But many others find the social restrictions frustrating and suffocating. Younger women especially have been expressing their exasperation with the Islamic regime.

Raha, a Tehran-based young professional, told RFE/RL that "indeed, Iranian women have the right to education and work, but still there are many rules and laws that have turned the women into a half person."

"On the surface, it looks like we have the right to education. In reality, however, husbands have the right not to allow their wives to continue their education, and the government and the law take the sides of the husbands," Raha said. "It is written that women have the right to work but, in reality, the husband can take that right away from his wife."

Iranian student Kiyan told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that, for him, Khomeini's name is related to war and poverty.

"It's very easy to judge what we see here today. It's unemployment, devastation, a failed economy, war with the whole world," Kiyan said. "The foundation of all of these things was formed at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution. I think Mr. Khomeini's responsibility for problems that we face today should not be underestimated."

'Losing Patience'

Mohammad said he "couldn't care less about the supreme leader's speeches or warnings." Mohammad insists he is not interested in politics; however, he is "losing" his patience with the political and religious leaders "who are interfering in people's lives and taking away their most basic freedom, such as the freedom to listen to music."

It was social restrictions that caused students to spill into the streets throughout Iran in 1999 in the most serious unrest in the country since the Islamic Revolution.

There has been an upsurge in student activities and protests in Iranian cities in recent years. In recent months, officials have arrested dozens of leftist student groups whose main slogan is "Freedom and Equality."

Radio Farda contributed to this report

Farda Journalist Details 'Unfortunate' UN Incident

Ahmad Rafat (file photo)

A correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Persian-language Radio Farda, barred from covering a UN food summit in Rome, is speaking in detail about the incident, which has attracted the attention of Italian politicians and the international media.

Ahmad Rafat, who is also a reporter for Voice of America, had his press pass confiscated and was barred from entering the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's (FAO) premises on June 3. Visiting Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was due to hold a press conference at the event later the same day.

The Iranian-born Rafat believes the FAO barred him from attending the event at the request of the Iranian government.

The case has raised concerns about whether the Iranian government was essentially allowed to censor the international press.

The FAO later admitted Rafat to the summit, but only after Ahmadinejad had left the grounds. The FAO's director of communications, Nick Parson, offered an apology, saying the organization was "extremely satisfied" that the issue had been resolved.

But many questions remain, including why Tehran might be so concerned over a single reporter's presence at a public event and how such concern could translate into security guards at a UN facility turning the reporter away.

Radio Farda is a U.S. Congressionally funded joint venture between RFE/RL and Voice of America that broadcasts in Persian to Iran.

'You Cannot Enter'

Rafat says the trouble began when he arrived at the FAO building to begin a day of summit coverage that was to include attendance at Ahmadinejad's press conference. He showed his official press accreditation for the summit, submitted his bags for inspection, and walked through the metal detector.

"On the other side, there was a gentleman from the Italian police who was looking at a piece of paper in his hand and looking at me. He told me, 'You cannot enter,'" Rafat says. "I asked why, and he said the FAO did not want it. Then, after checking my ID, he said, 'I must ask you to leave the building.'"

When Rafat protested, Italian police explained that the UN building has extraterritorial status and, although they provide security, all decisions over who comes and goes are entirely the FAO's to make.

Rafat, who is also deputy director of the biggest private news agency in Italy, Adnkronos, immediately alerted the media. He said he was shocked at his exclusion.

So were those who heard about it.

"Some 60 politicians released communiques supporting me and condemning the decision of FAO," Rafat says. "After that came statements from the Italian association of the press, the Foreign Press Club in Rome, the trade union of Italian journalists, and the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels."

'Gravest' Of Mistakes

European Parliament Vice President Mario Mauro criticized the incident as the "gravest" of mistakes and said it risked giving the impression that an undemocratic country was imposing its will upon the international community.

Demonstrators outside the FAO summit in Rome (AFP)

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he had ordered the head of the Italian delegation to the FAO to investigate the case.

Rafat says he believes Tehran might have pressed the UN agency to exclude him because of news he broadcast ahead of Ahmadinejad's trip to Rome. Those broadcasts, in Persian to Iran via Radio Farda, focused on the public controversy in Italy over the visit.

"I interviewed the director of an Italian daily ["Il Riformista"] who had organized a campaign against Ahmadinejad and who asked all Italian politicians not to meet [with] the Iranian president," Rafat says. "This appeal was immediately supported by the Italian foreign minister, who sent a letter to the newspaper saying he can't sign the appeal because he is a minister, but he morally supported it."

Rafat's reports detailed the Italian politicians' objections to Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and his confrontational attitude toward the West. Rafat also interviewed people on the street, some of whom reflected generally hostile public opinion toward the visit.

"I was practically the only voice from Italy reporting to Iran through Radio Farda and VOA TV that the situation in Italy was not how the Iranian state press portrayed it," Rafat says. "I reported the truth that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had scheduled an official dinner and the only two heads of state not invited were Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. I think that made Tehran want to silence me."

But while Rafat was prevented from attending Ahmadinehad's press conference, the outcry over the incident has now created an international embarrassment for Tehran.

And, until the details of the move become clearer, a UN agency has been implicated in the exclusion. The FAO declined Radio Farda requests for an interview on June 5.

One Question Ready

Rafat says he had a question ready for Ahmadinejad -- one to which Iranians might genuinely want an answer.

"My question was: If Iran is the second-largest oil producer in the world after Saudi Arabia, and the second-largest gas producer after Russia, and has more than $40 billion in reserves, why does such a rich country have 7 million people living under the poverty line of less than $1 a day?" Rafat says.

Rafat says that Ahmadinejad has responded in the past in Iran with answers suggesting that "the economy is managed by the 12th imam," a religious leader whose return devout Shi'a await to usher in a golden age, or by challenging conventional wisdom by asking, "Who says inflation is a bad thing?"

"I don't think he could have given such an answer in front of an international audience of journalists, because everyone would have started laughing," Rafat says. "But I do wonder what he would have said."