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Iran: Cleric's Trial Provides Platform For Liberals' Views

The trial of a reformist cleric has provided an unprecedented forum for Iran's liberals to air their views on some of the Islamic Republic's most sensitive political issues.

Prague, 12 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's hardliners have had a stormy time in trying to silence the highly outspoken Abdollah Nouri.

Their frustration was evident on Wednesday as the Special Court for the Clergy in Tehran moved through its sixth and final hearing. The cleric is charged with insulting officials and institutions of the Islamic government.

Nouri -- a mid-ranking cleric and one of the country's leading reformists -- was preparing to read yet another lengthy statement challenging conservative values. But hardline judge Mohammad Selimi could hear no more. With a call of "that's enough," he silenced Nouri and brought the session to a close.

The judge then gave Nouri a little over a week to submit a written defense to the 44-page indictment and said he would pronounce the verdict a week after that.

The end of the hearings -- which were open to the press -- was very much in the spirit of the proceedings over the last weeks. As the hardline-controlled court sought to cow Nouri, he counterattacked so strongly that often it was the conservatives, and not he, who appeared to be on trial.

Nouri -- publisher of the liberal camp's most outspoken daily Khordad -- faces charges ranging from spreading propaganda against the regime to questioning the Islamic Republic's official hostility to the United States.

Many observers believe that the hardline camp, which dominates the clerical court, will convict Nouri in order to accomplish two important political goals. A conviction would disqualify Nouri from running in February's parliamentary elections -- elections in which he is considered to be the liberals' frontrunning candidate. And a guilty verdict would clear the way for closing his influential newspaper.

As the hearing phase of the trial wrapped up on Wednesday, Nouri's lawyer called for the jury to decide the case fairly. In an interview with RFE/RL's Persian Service by telephone from Tehran, Mohsen Rahami said:

"I think if the gentlemen [of the jury] make their decision without political considerations, our presentation and defense arguments will not allow for any offense to be attributed to my client."

But whatever the court finally decides, Nouri already has done his best to make any punishment he receives from the court a Pyrrhic victory for his opponents. He aired so many of the liberal camp's campaign issues in court that even if he is barred from running for parliament, his conviction could well boost support for lesser-known liberals seeking seats.

As he defended himself, Nouri repeatedly turned the trial into what amounted to a pre-election debate on some of Iran's most politically sensitive subjects.

One of these is the reformist camp's demands for greater rule of law in Iran.

Nouri repeatedly challenged the legality of the hardliners' use of special courts that are not embodied in the constitution to try defendants on political charges. Just such a court is the Special Court for the Clergy. It exists outside of Iran's civic judicial system and has long been used by hardline clerics to punish their moderate colleagues.

Nouri and his lawyer made their rejections of the special court's legality a focus of much of the initial hearings. Lawyer Rahami told RFE/RL that he and his defendant have the right to question the court's constitutional basis and will continue to do so.

"It is a right reserved for attorneys, or the accused, to discuss the legitimacy of the court. After the court affirms its legitimacy, the actual discussions begin. Even at the appeals stage, the accused is entitled to raise the issue of the court's legitimacy."

Nouri equally called into question the legality of the hardliners' practice of enforcing as law the personal opinions of the founder of the Islamic Revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The prosecution has charged Nouri and his newspaper with insulting the late revolutionary leader by printing articles about a legal domestic opposition party -- the Freedom Movement of Iran. The court argued that the insult -- punishable by up to two years in prison -- stems from the fact Khomeini termed the party "deviationist."

Other sensitive subjects raised during the hearings concerned Iran's foreign policy.

Nouri, who is accused of challenging Khomeini's anti-U.S. policies, told the court that revolutionary policies should be subject to change over time. He also argued -- without mentioning the United States -- that Iran needs foreign investment and that each generation has the right to choose foreign policies as it sees fit.

The outspoken Nouri even challenged how hardliners interpret some of the basic tenets of Islam, including their enforcement of headscarves for women. The issue is a sore point for moderate Iranian youths, who object to vigilante street groups that routinely humiliate anyone they deem to be violating their vision of Islamic decorum.

Throughout the hearings, Nouri was repeatedly interrupted by the judge and prosecutor, in apparent efforts to limit his criticisms. But the widespread coverage of the trial by reformist newspapers -- which have made it a front-page story for weeks -- assured that his arguments were heard across Iran.

And that publicity could make the damage Nouri's trial ultimately inflicts on Iran's hardliners at least equal to the damage any guilty verdict may do its liberals.