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Iran: Dissident Murder Trial Rouses Wide Attention

The trial of 18 men, including intelligence agents, for the murders of four political dissidents continues to make headlines in Iran as closed-door proceedings drag into a third week. The families of the victims are boycotting the trial, which reformists say is a cover-up to protect higher-ranking hardline officials. RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin has the story:

Prague, 12 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Every day newspapers in Iran run news of the trial of 18 men suspected in the murders of four prominent dissidents. The details of the trial dominate not just the papers' front pages but the inside pages as well.

Observers say the choice of pages is a measure of the prominence newspapers are giving the story. The front pages, which are usually full of dull political articles, are seldom read, but the back pages -- stuffed with crime reports -- are popular. Readers can't fail to miss the details of one of the country's most riveting political dramas in recent years.

The case involves the murders of two prominent Iranian nationalists, Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar, and two writers, Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh. All were murdered in 1998 by assailants who for many months remained unidentified.

Then in early 1999 came a shock announcement from the Intelligence Ministry. The murders, it said, were carried out by "rogue" security agents. But reformists were skeptical and their doubts only increased when the man charged with being the ringleader died from swallowing poison (hair remover) in prison. Many suspected a cover-up and that the real responsibility for the murders could lie with far-higher-placed hardline officials.

Last week, the military court which is trying the assassins completed its hearing of defense arguments. All but two of the 18 pleaded "guilty" and said the trail of responsibility ended with the dead ringleader. The court has not said when the trial will be completed and the sentences announced.

The murder case has fascinated Iranians because many see it as a direct test of whether the hardline-dominated court system can provide what they see as justice. So far, most reformists say they have been bitterly disappointed.

RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent Mosaddegh Katouzian spoke before the trial with Taghi Rahmani, an outspoken political activist. He said the murder case has touched people at all levels of society.

"The (political) murders in our society have turned into a national problem and are weighing on the nation's conscience. For members of parliament [elected in May last year], one of their promises to their constituents was to follow up on the...murder cases. [Because] the...murders in Iran are not just about four people, they include a widespread [pattern of assassinations]. Some say that there is no control and ability to confront the perpetrators of these murders."

Reformists say the four murdered dissidents were among more than 80 victims of state-sponsored assassinations and disappearances carried out over a period of 10 years to silence political opposition.

The 1998 murders have particularly captured the public's attention because the victims were well-known and respected figures. The Farouhars had frequently been jailed as political critics before and after the Islamic revolution.

Parastoo Forouhar, the daughter of Darioush and Parvaneh, described her parents' murder in a statement to Persian Service correspondent Katouzian. She spoke of her father first:

"They say [the assassins] made Darioush Forouhar sit on the chair in his library. They say someone held his right arm, someone held his left arm. They say someone from behind put a hand on his mouth to suffocate his last cry. They say someone stabbed a dagger into his chest time and time again. The next day, when his friend went to see him, he found him on the same chair with his head toward the sky, greeting his friend with an expression mixed with the peace of death."

She described her mother's assassination this way:

"My mother, our courageous lioness, was captured from the back -- someone held her hands from behind and, they say, two people pressed on her throat and on her mouth. They say, she had fallen on the floor when someone brought up a dagger and stabbed her chest time and time again. They say her free life would not leave her. They say the executioners could not bear seeing her trembling body and stabbed again and again and tore her chest apart."

The relatives of all four victims have boycotted the closed-door trial, saying that the two-year investigation proceeding it was deceptive and not intended to discover who ordered the agents to kill. The assassins have all claimed they were only obeying orders -- a plea which in a military court should win them reduced punishments.

The relatives originally hired attorneys for the trial but later dismissed them as part of their boycott of the proceedings. Some of the attorneys have been arrested and lost their licenses on charges they violated national security by revealing information about the suspects during the case.

Ramezan Hadj-Mashadi, a lawyer now defending one of the arrested attorneys, said the arrests weakened the belief of ordinary citizens that they can turn to lawyers to defend them in court. Hadj-Mashadi:

"In any case, arresting attorneys is an exceptional and significant event. It represents a criticism of the institution [of justice]. And, unfortunately, this creates doubts in people's minds that lawyers will have the courage to represent and defend their rights and, consequently, this does not reflect well on a country's justice system. And this is not beneficial to national security."

At the same time, the trial is dampening the hopes of many Iranians for a more open society based on the rule of law. Both were campaign promises which helped sweep the now embattled moderate President Mohammad Khatami into office in 1997.