Iran's sentencing of leading investigative journalist Akbar Ganji to jail this month dealt a severe blow to reformists' efforts to learn who ordered a string of assassinations of dissidents over the past decade. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, Ganji was one of the most outspoken voices for getting to the bottom of a scandal that has shaken many Iranians' confidence in their institutions.
Prague, 18 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- One of the interesting things about Akbar Ganji's sentencing last week is that it came amid a string of verdict announcements punishing reformists for attending a conference in Berlin.
That gave the appearance that the journalist's chief crime in the eyes of the court might be his participation in a conference where members of Iranian exile groups -- including one man who stripped naked -- rudely demonstrated against Islamic values.
But a closer look at Ganji's sentence shows his attending the Berlin conference was the least of the hardline-dominated court's concerns.
While Ganji got four years of jail for being at the Berlin conference, he received an additional four years for possessing a confidential government bulletin, a year and a half for insulting the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and another half a year for allegedly "working against the Islamic system." In addition to that total of 10 years jail time, he also was sentenced to a following five years of internal exile.
Most of the verdict punishes Ganji -- considered Iran's top investigative journalist -- for doing what many reformists say was simply his job. And that was to investigate one of Iran's most dramatic scandals in recent years: the murders of some 80 to 100 dissidents over the past decade.
The scandal broke in 1998 after a well-known dissident couple -- Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar -- and writers Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh were assassinated by men the Intelligence Ministry later identified as rogue agents.
That announcement was soon followed by security officials saying that the agents' suspected ringleader had committed suicide in prison. The suicide was Said Emami, the ex-deputy intelligence minister in charge of operational affairs, and his death effectively ended efforts to further investigate the case. Eighteen other suspects have since gone to trial behind closed doors, with all but two pleading guilty this month to following Emami's orders.
Ganji and many other reformists are convinced the ex-deputy intelligence minister was not operating without instructions from higher officials and over the past two years the journalist probed hard and publicly with columns in reformist papers and a well-selling book entitled "The Dungeon of Ghosts."
Ganji said he found evidence that an execution committee of at least six senior Iranian government officials ordered the secret assassination of up to 100 dissidents, intellectuals and criminals during Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's ten years as president, which ended in 1997.
Several of those whom he later named in his trial as members of the execution committee are still very highly placed officials.
He said one is Ali Fallahian, head of intelligence throughout Rafsanjani's presidency, and now a member of the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member body which has the power to appoint and dismiss Iran's supreme leader. He said another is Ali Razini, a past judicial chief for Tehran and now a member of the Special Court for the Clergy. And Gangi even hinted at the involvement of Rafsanjani himself, now head of the Expediency Council, which resolves disputes between parliament and a special Islamic oversight committee.
Analysts say that the charges have riveted Iranians because they raise tough questions about the functioning of several of the country's key institutions, including the intelligence services and the judiciary. At issue is whether these institutions are applying the country's laws according to the constitution or are simply being used by a coterie of hard-liners ready to employ any means -- including assassination -- to retain power.
William Samii, a regional specialist with RFE/RL, says those questions have often been asked by foreign governments. In 1997 the German federal court accused officials at the highest level of the Islamic Republic of masterminding the assassination of several Iranian dissidents on German soil.
But he says the debate has seldom been heard publicly in Iran. William Samii says:
"There has been a consensus [in Iran] in the last 10 years that power is in the hands of a relatively limited group. But what this case brought out was that this group is using its power to eliminate its enemies. And what the work of Ganji did was to make very public and direct hints as to who specifically was involved in the manipulation of these institutions. [And] during his trial Ganji actually named names."
The public debate has impassioned both Iran's reformists and hard-liners. Mohammad-Reza Khatami, head of Iran's biggest reform party and the brother of the president, says he believes the number of political murders is about 80. Hard-liners claim the whole scandal is the creation of foreign powers intent on damaging Iran's Islamic system.
So far, the hard-liners have maintained the upper hand by using their dominance of key power institutions to stymie any official investigation into the scandal.
Samii says in the wake of the 1998 murders, at least two governmental commissions were appointed to look into them. But their work went nowhere.
"It turned out that one of the commissions, in which the future minister of intelligence and security was a participant, that [commission] according to him never got anywhere, no one cooperated with it, so that commission eventually just disbanded."
"The investigation by the other commission just seemed to die out, there were no published reports on it on the grounds that such information would be harmful to national security. But the fact that these commissions existed and got nowhere I think seriously undermined their credibility in the eyes of the public."
At the same time, the hard-liners have used their dominance of the country's press courts to close reformist papers, like "Salam" and "Khordad," that followed the murder story.
At a press conference for Iranian and foreign reporters last February, Ganji refused to reveal where he obtained his information, saying only that families of those killed provided some of it. And he called for the formation of a national fact-finding committee to uncover the truth, saying it is impossible for Iran to implement reforms unless it curbs political violence.
That was in line with the hopes of many reformers immediately after the 1998 assassinations that President Mohammad Khatami and his supporters would succeed in using the investigations to purge the intelligence ministry and various judicial institutions of hard-liners who act outside the law.
A new intelligence minister -- Ali Yunesi -- was appointed and that change was welcomed by the reformists. But there has been no wider purge. Ganji's sentencing this week is a measure of how completely the reformists hopes appear to have been defeated.