The court on April 14 confirmed the acquittal of six Iranian militiamen who admitted killing five people in the southeastern city of Kerman in 2002-03. The six men justified the killings by saying the victims were "morally corrupt" according to religious laws, accusing them of selling drugs and engaging in extramarital sex.
The last two victims were a married couple the militiamen killed for supposedly having "illegitimate" relations as lovers, the daily "Etemad" reported on April 15.
The six defendants -- all of whom admitted to the killings -- are reportedly members of the local Basij militia, a nationwide force affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.
They were identified in court proceedings as Ali; Soleiman; Mohammad; Mohammad S.; Changiz; and Mohammad Hamzeh, the apparent ringleader of the group, "Etemad" reported.
Stoned And Buried Alive
The militiamen elaborated on their crimes during the court case, telling the Kerman court that they first killed 19-year-old Mosibat Afshari on September 4, 2002, for allegedly selling drugs, "Etemad" reported. They told the court they repeatedly asked him to stop selling drugs and decided he should be killed when he refused to stop.
They testified that they took him to an isolated place, hit him on the head with stones and buried him while he was still alive.
The six said they killed Mohsen Kamali a week later because "he was morally corrupt." He was strangled to death.
A few months later they killed a woman named Jamileh who, they said, "also dealt in drugs and had moral corruption." They told the court that she was stoned to death and that they buried her in the desert.
'We Didn't Know They Were Married'
The last two victims were Mohammad Reza Nejad-Malayeri and Shohreh Nikpur. The killers told the court that they were told that the two were corrupt and had "illegitimate relations," referring presumably to local hearsay about the couple, who were drowned in a pond.
"We did not know Shohreh and Mohammad Reza were married, and we thought they had illegitimate relations," the defendants said.
The killings apparently took place after groups of Basiji militiamen watched a videotape in 2002 of a senior Iranian cleric stating that citizens could kill persons deemed to be morally corrupt if the state failed to act against them, "The New York Times" reported on April 18. This led to the killing of up to 17 people at the time, though this particular group apparently only killed the five cited.
A Kerman court later convicted the six Basiji members of various crimes, including murder and kidnapping, and their sentences included public execution.
But Iran's Supreme Court overturned those sentences, arguing that the penalty of retaliatory execution did not apply to the defendants who killed in the belief that their victims were corrupt.
The high court then sent the case back to the regional court, and a second Kerman court sentenced only the defendants identified as Mohammad Hamzeh and Ali to death. The others were acquitted reportedly with the acquiescence of the victims' families, who apparently agreed to receive "blood money" in accepting the acquittals.
But the Supreme Court again rejected that sentence, after which a Kerman judge acquitted all of the defendants. But relatives of the victims objected, and the case went back to the Supreme Court. It then rejected the objections from the victims' relatives and confirmed the Keman court's acquittal of the six men.
The acquittal may still be appealed before the Supreme Court's full membership of 50 judges, "The New York Times" reported on April 18. A lawyer for the victims' relatives, identified as Riahi, said he concluded from the latest verdict that the defendants will not even go to jail, though he said a "retaliatory execution" remained in force for one defendant, Ali, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 17.
Upholding A Dangerous Statute
The ruling has reportedly greatly disappointed lawyers and much of the public and suggests there are great discrepancies in Iran's justice system.
Mohammad Seifzadeh, a lawyer involved in the case, told "The New York Times" such incidents will recur as long as the law allows citizens to decide for themselves whether others are corrupt enough to be criminals and how they should be punished.
Another lawyer in the case, Nemat Ahmadi, told the daily the latest verdict has undermined public confidence in the judicial system.
Attorney Riahi said the verdict was based on Addendum 2 of Article 295 of the Iranian Islamic Penalties Law.
"While this article remains in the country's penal code, the road to its abuse is open, and offenders have repeatedly and...in numerous cases relied on this law to ask for acquittal," "Aftab-i Yazd" quoted him as saying.
Supreme Court members presumably believe they have implemented the precise letter of the law, despite the impression to many of startling injustice.
Iranians may also wonder about a justice system that jails and fines feminists, trade unionists, teachers, and students for protesting -- and allegedly endangering national security -- but acquits individuals who have taken the law into their hands and committed brutal murders.
Expedient Decision Making
The case perhaps displays the interplay of two complementary phenomena in the Islamic republic: the love of legalities on the one hand, and "expedient" decision making on the other.
Laws are often contradictory in Iran and their interpretation remains the preserve of a small number of jurists or religious authorities -- in this case Supreme Court judges.
A similar example of extended judicial power in Iran is the interpretation by Guardians Council jurists of purported "evidence" that determines the eligibility of candidates for political office, which usually leads to the disqualification of many hopeful candidates as unsuited for public office.
The public often sees political bias in the council's decisions, but its members insist they simply implement the law as they see it -- and they insist that they know better.
Likewise, the specialized learning of senior clerics ostensibly allows them to make "expedient" decisions -- considered beneficial or necessary to society and religion. In this case, someone seems to have decided it would not be "expedient" in Iran to punish religious zeal -- even if such zeal led to murder.
Islam And Human Rights
RFE/RL spoke with Iranian activist Emad Baghi about the problems of defending human rights in a system based on Islamic law. more
Stoned To Death
A small group of Iranian activists have protested against the use of stoning to punish adulterers, arguing that it is a slow and cruel form of execution. more
A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)
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