Prague, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Recent calls by the international community for Iran to show greater openness in its judicial system are highlighting inequities in the way Iran judges clerics and ordinary citizens.
The UN human rights rapporteur for Iran, Maurice Copithorne, sharply criticized Tehran two weeks ago for continuing to maintain a powerful cleric's court, known as the Special Court for the Clergy. The court, introduced several years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, holds exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed by clerics, thereby depriving Iranians of equal representation before the law.
In a report published in Geneva, Copithorne called for abolishing the Special Court or at least transforming it into a purely theological body. He also criticized the court for conducting its business behind closed doors and passing sentence on clerics deemed disloyal to the regime on vague charges.
The UN report said that, to quote, it is difficult to justify the continued existence of such an apparently arbitrary and secretive tribunal.
The Iranian government immediately rejected the call. A Foreign Ministry statement said last week that the report "went against the facts." Tehran has frequently accused Copithorne of bias in investigating human rights in Iran and has barred him from visiting the country to prepare his reports.
The UN criticism of the clerical court system echoes that from other human rights groups. Amnesty International has said that the Special Court for the Clergy investigates and tries crimes such as "counter-revolution, corruption, immorality, unlawful acts and anything which might damage the prestige of the clergy." Penalties imposed by the court include death and imprisonment, and the court has sentenced many leading clerics to house arrest. The December report of Human Rights Watch was similarly critical.
The existence of the court dates to 1986-87, when it was established at the urging of one of Iran's most powerful conservative clerics, the Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, to pursue a case against a rival high cleric. The cleric, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Hashemi, was executed for allegedly conspiring against the Islamic Republic.
The many cases the court has tried since then have led its critics to call the court a political weapon wielded by Iran's most hard-line clerics to squash dissent within Iran's clergy, where political opinions can vary greatly.
The Special Court also can try cases in which the managing director of a publication is a cleric. In April 1993, the court banned the daily "Rah-i Mujahid" for publishing statements by a senior dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Last October, the Special Court also banned the weekly "Navid-i Isfahan" on charges of "disturbing public opinion [and] promoting opposition groups."
Iran's President Mohammad Khatami, himself a relatively moderate cleric, has not spoken publicly on the clerical court system. But he has frequently called for more openness in Iran. He was elected in 1997 with more than 70 percent of the vote largely on the strength of campaign promises including greater freedom of expression and the rule of law, which would include equal legal rights for all citizens.
So far, any calls for greater openness in the judicial system have had no impact on the secretive clerical court, which late last month ordered the arrest of yet another moderate cleric on as yet unspecified charges of "several crimes."
The Iranian daily Salam reported that the court targeted Islamic intellectual Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar by alleging that he spoke favorably about dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri and unfavorably about the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Montazeri, who is frequently at the center of battles between Iran's reformists and conservatives, is currently under house arrest in Qom. Shortly after the Islamic Revolution, he was designated to be the heir to Khomeini but lost the chance to Iran's present supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Montazeri has since angered the hardline supreme leader by questioning his qualifications and calling for greater political openness. Montazeri's followers are often arrested.
Montazeri, one of the architects of the Islamic Republic's constitution, has said that the clerical court is illegal. The cleric's spokesman, his son Ahmad, told RFE/RL's Persian service in an interview from Iran this week that the court should be under the supervision of the judiciary.
"[My father] has written several times that the Special Court for the Clergy is not compatible with the Constitution. According to the Constitution, all courts should be under supervision of the judiciary. There is no question about this. This is now being misrepresented under the laws permitting religious leadership."
The Special Court's crackdown on Kadivar has set off a sharp battle between Iran's rival political camps which is likely to start renewed debate among Iranians over the legitimacy of the clerical court.
Kadivar has put up a tough defense by rejecting the authority of the Special Court and calling it illegal. He also has said his comments about the Islamic Republic's founder are being deliberately misunderstood.
This is not the first time the Special Court has brought charges against somebody advocating new ideas. Last summer Hojatoleslam Mohsen Saeedzadeh was arrested for murder after irritating hard-liners by advocating women's rights and publishing an article comparing Iran's hard-liners to the Taliban of Afghanistan.
The Kadivar case has mobilized reformists, with an important coalition of pro-Khatami religious students -- the Office for Strengthening Unity -- condemning Kadivar's arrest at a recent special meeting. In the southern city of Shiraz, about 100 students have staged a rally outside Kadivar's home.
The official Iranian news agency IRNA reported that managing directors of major liberal dailies have protested the arrest in a letter to Khatami. The Special Court reacted with a statement indicating that the grounds for Kadivar's arrest are constitutionally correct, and that political factions are trying to interfere with law enforcement.
How the Khatami government reacts to this arrest will be seen by many Iranians as an indicator of its commitment to the rule of law.
A key Khatami ally, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani, has already come to Kadivar's defense. In an interview with the English-language Iran Daily last week, Mohajerani called Kadivar's arrest, in his words, like the detention of thoughts and theories.
But since Kadivar is also Mohajerani's brother-in-law, it still remains uncertain for the moment whether the first sign of government support stems from personal or ideological concerns.
(Samii is an Iran analyst with RFE/RL's Communications Division.)