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Iran: Dissidents Remain In Prison As Country Votes For Reform

As Iran votes in presidential elections today, upwards of 50 liberal activists are in jail for calling for reforms or criticizing elements of the Islamic system. This week the wives of some of the dissidents tried to protest their husbands' detention by holding a press conference. The event was cut short by a landlord who feared retribution from authorities if he let it continue. But RFE/RL's Persian Service has spoken with many of the wives, enabling them to tell their story. Correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 8 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Between 50 and 60 Iranian reformist journalists, dissident clerics, student activists, and religious nationalists are still behind bars.

The inmates were arrested over the past year in a sweeping crackdown by Iran's hard-line judiciary, which has rolled back much of the liberal progress made early in moderate President Mohammad Khatami's first term.

The conservative counterattack has been approved by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It has shut down most of the liberal press and jailed some of Khatami's most outspoken allies, including his former interior minister and vice president, Abdollah Nouri.

The crackdown has seen a continual flow of reformists brought to hard-line courts on charges of slandering conservative officials or, more vaguely, working against the Islamic Republic or revolutionary values.

The luckiest offenders have been released on bail or had lengthy sentences later reduced upon appeal. But for most of those still in jail there is no immediate prospect of reprieve. Many have been languishing in prison for months as they await trial, kept in solitary confinement and out of touch with their families.

This week, the families of 40 Iranian political prisoners published an open letter of protest to President Khatami. In the letter, they said the arrests are based on false charges and forced confessions and that the prisoners are jailed in unbearable conditions.

The letter was made public just ahead of today's presidential poll -- in which Khatami is considered certain to be re-elected. And it comes amid mounting calls on the moderate incumbent to do more to protect those who support his goals of greater political and social freedoms as he starts a second term.

At a pro-Khatami youth rally early this week, a 15-year-old girl joined the president at the podium to introduce herself as "a first-time voter and the daughter of political prisoner Mohammed Bastehnegar." Then, as she began to cry and Khatami comforted her, the 10,000-strong crowd began chanting for all political prisoners to be freed.

The wives of detained liberal dissidents tried to hold a public press conference in Tehran Wednesday (6 June). But news reports (Reuters) say that the meeting was interrupted when the landlord of the building they had rented demanded it be stopped for fear of retribution from the authorities. The wives then moved to one of their homes where they met privately with members of the domestic and foreign press.

RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Jamshid Zand telephoned one of the wives, Nargess Mohammadi, who is married to Taghi Rahmani, a religious nationalist activist. Zand asked why the families had decided to try to hold a press conference just before the presidential election. Mohammadi replied:

"[Because of] the imprisonment conditions of our loved ones in horrific solitary confinement. In places with no daylight. They are blindfolded when they are taken out for fresh air. They have irregular or no visiting hours. These temporary detentions are growing months longer and longer without getting any clear response from the Judiciary authorities and the Revolutionary Court. We had no other choice but to give this press conference because this secret detention means that anything at all can be done to our loved ones."

As an outspoken religious nationalist, Mohammadi's husband Rahmani is part of a loose association of individuals and groups that advocate a Muslim state not necessarily under clerical leadership.

Many religious nationalists were rounded up in March and April as a hard-line Revolutionary Court accused members of one party, the Iran Freedom Movement, or IFM, of seeking to overthrow the regime. But the accusations have been highly controversial, with Iran's intelligence minister saying that his agency has no evidence the party has such goals.

Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian of RFE/RL's Persian Service spoke with the wife of one of the IFM's leaders, Mohammed Bastehnegar, the same man whose daughter had pleaded for his freedom at the youth rally. His wife, Tahereh Talegahani, told our correspondent that authorities long claimed her husband did not want to see her before they finally granted a rare meeting.

"These gentlemen [that is, the authorities] told me that he had no desire for a meeting. They said that they talked him into the meeting and that he only wanted to see his wife to give her his 'Last Will.' [When we met] he said to me he has been told that they will arrest me, my children and my son-in-law."

Talegahani also told RFE/RL that Bastehnegar has been told that he has to write a letter and that if he doesn't write it he will be issued a death sentence. She said she did not know what kind of a letter is wanted.

Other wives have similar stories. Farzaneh Roustaie, the wife of Reza Rais-Tousi, a political science lecturer at Tehran University and a religious nationalist, told RFE/RL that her husband has been psychologically tortured.

"The point I would like to reiterate is that his physical condition expresses nothing but torture. Now that these gentlemen [the authorities] have access to new techniques, it is not necessary to use a whip or burning. They are kept in prisons for more than two months, everything is white, and they cannot make any noise, and they hear nothing and no one except for the echo of the prosecutor's voice."

Public outrage over the continued detention of dissidents has grown in recent months as hard-liners have brought forth what they call voluntary confessions from two detainees.

Iran's conservative-dominated state television recently showed student leader Ali Afshari confessing to spying for the United States. And Tehran's Revolutionary Court said earlier this week that an IFM leader, Ezzatollah Sahabi, also confessed to working with the United States to topple the Islamic system.

President Khatami criticized the confessions, saying that he personally does not "accept the methods adopted in such cases." He also said that both those who confessed and imprisoned journalists are entitled to a fair trial by jury in the presence of their lawyers. Leading dissidents have been given lengthy sentences by revolutionary or special closed courts.

Whether Khatami can find a way to protect reformists from arbitrary punishment is now likely to become a central measure of the success of his second term in office, which will begin immediately after today's election. Results are due by late tomorrow or early Sunday (10 June).