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Iran: Home Usage Of 'Immodest' Entertainment Decriminalized

By Azam Gorgin and Charles Recknagel

In Iran, it is no longer illegal to watch videos and listen to cassettes that are deemed immodest under the country's tough morality codes. As RFE/RL's Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin report, many Iranians view the ruling as another step toward greater personal freedom in the Islamic Republic.

Prague, 12 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Supreme Court addressed what has long been a sore point for liberal Iranians when it ruled citizens may possess films and music with what the law terms "immodest" content.

The ruling, which was made in December and took effect last week, allows home use of such material as mainstream films that include scenes of couples kissing or embracing. It also permits ownership of music with romantic lyrics which hardline proponents of Islamic law would deem salacious.

The Supreme Court decision permits consumers to own and enjoy the pictures, films, or tapes so long as they are not sold or distributed for profit or, as one court official told reporters, used to promote public corruption or prostitution.

The ruling rolls back what has long been one of the Islamic Republic's most invasive laws -- the Islamic Law for Prevention of Moral Offense -- which has given hardline vigilantes the right to enter and search homes to police private morality. Under the old law, the vigilantes -- legally empowered as the Guardians of Moral Offense Prevention -- could arrest homeowners and guests for viewing banned material and take them for questioning to the Islamic Courts.

In the past, those found in possession of the videos and music could face harsh punishment.

RFE/RL's Persian Service asked a press lawyer, Ahmad Bashiri, to describe the punishments under the old law and explain why the Supreme Court has now moved to reinterpret it. He spoke by telephone from Tehran:

"Clause 640 of the Law of Islamic Punishment says that [violators] will be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment, a fine of 1,500,000 to 6,000,000 rials [and/or] 74 lashes. They will be sentenced to one or more of [these] punishments. [The punishments applied to] anyone who would possess writings, advertising, paintings, pictures, films, videos or anything which damages public morality."

Bashiri says the law was frequently abused by the vigilantes, who interpreted it very broadly to confiscate whatever they saw fit.

"Here there was a problem between law enforcement and the people. These [vigilantes] entered homes [and] if they saw a pornographic videotape they would even confiscate an ordinary tape, too, and take it with them."

The lawyer says that when the accused came before the Islamic Courts, judges also interpreted the broad but vague ban on immodest materials according to their own standards. This led to conflicts between different judges issuing different verdicts for the same offense, something which only contributed to a widespread feeling among liberal Iranians that the law was not only unfair, but also arbitrary.

By now allowing ownership of once-questionable materials, the Supreme Court apparently hopes to end such abuses and provide Iranians a greater sense of control over their private lives. As such, the ruling is in line with Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's repeated promises to increase the rule of law and give citizens greater social and political freedoms.

But how widely the new ruling will be observed by Iran's hardliner-dominated courts remains to be seen.

In the past, Iran's courts have varied widely in their interpretation and application of laws according to the preferences of judges. There also still remains the questions of whether hardline vigilante groups -- ever ready to fulfill their role as morality police -- will accept the diminishment of their responsibilities.

Until those questions are answered, many liberal Iranians may remain as discreet as ever in enjoying what hardliners deem immoral material, even though they now have the legal right to do so.