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Iran: Death Sentences For Iranian Protesters Shock Reformers

By Charles Recknagel/Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian

An Iranian hard-line court's sentencing to death of four people in connection with the unrest that swept the country this summer has shocked many Iranian reformers. A correspondent for RFE/RL's Persian Service, Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian, explains why.

Prague, 17 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When the head of an Iranian revolutionary court on Sunday [Sept. 12] told a hard-line newspaper that four people had been given death sentences for this summer's unrest, many of Iran's reformists found it hard to believe the news.

RFE/RL correspondent Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian cites several reasons why the initial reaction of many moderate Iranians to the death sentences was disbelief.

First, there was the extreme nature of the penalties, which were handed down in closed-door sessions -- despite laws saying that such trials must be conducted publicly.

Second, there was the manner in which the news was delivered. The court's judge, Gholamhossein Rahbarpour, informed the public of the verdicts in an exclusive interview with one of Iran's hardest-line newspapers, "Jomhuri-ye Eslami." That, too, contravened the usual practice of announcing court verdicts in press conferences.

And finally, there was the fact that none of the four people sentenced to death has been identified by name -- yet another marked departure from Iranian legal practice.

Katouzian says that all these factors together delivered a rude shock to reformists. Many of them had hoped conservatives might opt for reducing tensions between the two camps after the week-long unrest that shook the country in July. Both sides have repeatedly expressed desires for reducing tensions in recent months -- including, among the conservatives, Iran's influential former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Katouzian explains:

"The four death sentences [were] very surprising. [They shocked] a number of people in various factions of the Islamic Republic. Ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is still influential, [had earlier] said the way we should react to these kinds of offenders ... is with compassion. Being as influential as he is, there was [a feeling] among the public that the judgments would not be as harsh."

The six days of violence in July began when students protesting the closure of a reformist newspaper were attacked by security forces aided by vigilantes. That resulted in students taking to the streets of Tehran the next day. The unrest rapidly grew into rioting in most of Iran's major cities.

Many reformists believe that Iran's conservative-dominated judiciary has now opted for sending a clear message to reformists that widespread street protests will not be tolerated. They feel the timing of the verdicts is aimed particularly at students, who return to classes for a new academic year next week.

Katouzian summarizes the worries of the reformists:

"The conservative faction wants to send a message to the students who are coming back to the universities, and what they would like to show them is to learn a lesson from the protests which led to those street demonstrations and the street fighting."

Katouzian says many reformists regard the way the verdicts were handed down both as a warning and as a deliberate slap-in-the-face to their own efforts to create a more transparent society.

"There hasn't been, according to them, transparency in how these sentences were given, under what conditions, who the people involved in the trials were, who the judges were, who the attorneys -- if indeed there were any -- were, and so on...."

The reformists also see a strong double standard at work in the court's verdicts. Death sentences were given to four people involved in the street protests, but no trials have taken place for the policemen and vigilantes whose attacks on student demonstrators sparked the July unrest.

"The second criticism brought up by the reformists is the double standard that they think has been at work here. ...The issue that triggered the whole incident was an attack on the student dormitory on the first day. That then brought [out] the students...for sit-ins and, in the end, [for] the street demonstrations. But no trial has been set for any of those who have been involved in [the initial] attack."

The reformists' refusal to retreat, in turn, has only convinced conservatives that the crackdown following the unrest has not gone far enough. But if conservatives are trying to send a clear message to reformists that they have the power to sharply punish protesters, Katouzian says neither camp believes the harsh sentences will end the ongoing power struggle. He says that reformists feel outraged by the court's actions, yet -- by all signs -- remain unbowed.

"When you read the writings of the conservative newspapers, they are also very unsatisfied with the aftermath of the crackdown on the protests. They say in some of their papers that [they] thought that the conflict was going to end...and that a number of reformists would retreat from their initial positions and go back to the principles of the Islamic Republic. And they are unsatisfied that this hasn't happened."

Both sides are now looking to parliamentary elections due in February as the next round in their ongoing battle. The reformists hope the elections will weaken the conservatives' hold on the legislature and help the moderates push forward their goal of turning the Islamic Republic into a more open society. But the conservatives are just as committed to preserving their own hard-line interpretation of the Islamic Revolution. And that includes handing out stern punishments to anyone they feel goes too far in threatening it.