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Iran: Trials Under Way For Banned Newspapers

Almost all Iran's reformist papers have been closed since a hardline crackdown earlier this year. Now the cases are going to court, and the war over press freedom is again heating up. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 14 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Publishers of Iran's closed reformist newspapers have begun appearing in court over the past weeks in the first trials since Iran's sweeping press crackdown began three months ago.

The crackdown was the biggest hardline counterattack on the liberal press since the election of moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. After his election, hundreds of licenses had been granted to newspapers and magazines of all political stripes. But in a single day in April, the hardline-dominated judiciary ordered the closure of 13 reformist publications. Since then, three more have been shut, including one last month. Only one conservative paper has been closed.

That leaves just four reformist papers publishing in Iran today: "Kar va Karagar," "Hayat-i No," "Bahaar," and "Hamshahri." Another two papers are considered as middle-of-the-road -- "Entekhab" and the state-owned "Iran." All others are conservative or hardline.

But if the crackdown on the reformist papers has been thorough, the legal charges brought against them are vague. Many are based on accusations by hardline officials or groups that the papers were guilty of slandering them or of insulting Islamic values. On the strength of those charges, dozens of reformist journalists were arrested and many have spent the last few months in prison.

Now the trials of those journalists finally appear to be beginning, and last week a first conviction was handed down. Mostafa Izadi, the director of the outspoken weekly "Ava," appeared in court for two sessions late last month and again last week -- and lost against 10 plaintiffs.

Nazee Azima of RFE/RL's Persian Service spoke during the trial with an attorney in Tehran observing the case. The trial was held in an open court before a press jury.

Lawyer Mohammad Aghassi told our correspondent that the plaintiffs ranged from the Press Oversight Committee to the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammad Aghassi: "They had ten plaintiffs. The Press Oversight Committee, the Revolutionary Guard [Corps of the cities of] Qom and Najafabad, the prosecutor's representative, Isfahan's Special Court of Clerics -- all the complaints were of a press nature. [Izadi] was accused of publishing lies and disrespectful material in his newspaper."

The lawyer said that Izadi's chief fault in the eyes of the plaintiffs was their perception that he is a supporter of one of Iran's most moderate clerics, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who has long been under house arrest.

The outspoken Montazeri has frequently questioned whether Iran's current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei should hold the country's highest political and spiritual power. Montazeri himself once was chosen by the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to be his successor but was later rejected because of political differences.

Izadi is still awaiting sentencing and it is unclear what form his punishment could take. The Tehran legal expert told RFE/RL that he would likely lose his publication's license and could serve time in prison. But he said that because Izadi has held important jobs since the inception of the revolution, any personal punishment is likely to be light.

A second trial got under way last week, but so far has not proceeded beyond the hearing stage. Mohammad Reza Zohdi, the publisher of the popular daily "Arya," appeared in court to hear 61 charges read out against his newspaper. The charges include inciting public opinion, propaganda against the state, and striving to weaken the system. Among the plaintiffs are the Intelligence Ministry and the police intelligence department.

With the press trials just getting under way, reformist activists say they have little hope that the majority of the banned publications will be allowed to begin publishing again anytime soon. But even as some journalists have begun appearing in court as defendants, others are fighting back by filing complaints of their own against the hardliners.

A first counterattack came last week from the head of the banned newspaper "Gozaresh-e Rouz," whose publisher Mohammad Ali Mahdavi Khorram filed a complaint against the public relations administrator of Tehran's Justice Department.

The publisher described his complaint to RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Mossadegh Katouzian by telephone from Tehran. Mohammad Ali Mahdavi Khorram: "It is a matter of retrieving our dignity, our forgotten rights, and of reviving our forgotten rights. It seems that during these recent few years, a selected few who are backed by some political power, or especially some protective power, are using libel and slander against other citizens. Despite the fact that in our philosophy, dignity is of no less worth than one's life, a few people have without any basis blackened our reputation."

As Iran's press closures now move into the courts, it is clear that both sides are preparing for a tough fight. And whether the current 19 banned publications win or lose their cases, the verdicts will be only one more round in the protracted battle over press freedom taking place in Iran.

Signs of new fronts in that battle became clearer this month. Deputies in Iran's reform-majority parliament have drafted a bill to repeal highly restrictive press measures passed by the outgoing conservative parliament earlier this year. Those measures included a law to let hardline revolutionary courts prosecute press offenses and a ban on closed newspapers reopening under a new name.

Reformist deputies now want to undo those measures and replace them with press protections, including guarantees that any legal action against a paper would be heard by the general courts in open session and with a jury. They would also like to precisely define crimes such as insulting religion, and they want an end to pre-trial bans on publications.

But even with a majority now in parliament, the reformists may have to proceed cautiously. Their conservative rivals still hold two institutions, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council, which oversee the work of the new parliament and could try to undermine it.

The conservatives also continue to control the judiciary and law enforcement agencies. These bodies can either ignore or prevent vigilante actions against the press -- yet another tool for crackdowns.