Public floggings for minor offenses have been rare in Iran in recent years, but the past few weeks have seen a sudden resurgence of the practice. The return of the public punishments -- carried out by members of a voluntary moral police -- has stirred strong protests from Iran's reformist camp. RFE/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin report on the controversy.
Prague, 1 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When hard-line vigilantes showed up in a public park in Tehran's wealthy northern quarter last week to carry out a public lashing of eight men aged 20 to 25, they were met by a crowd of shocked onlookers.
Those to be punished were charged by a hard-line court with drinking alcohol and causing a public disturbance. Their disciplinarians were members of an officially sanctioned volunteer "morals" police which enforces the Islamic Republic's injunctions against immoral behavior and carries out court-ordered punishments for minor offenses.
On this occasion, the men received 70 to 80 lashes each in the city's Vanak Square. The official Iranian news agency IRNA reported that hundreds of passersby stopped and several young women burst into tears at the spectacle.
The same day, another 14 young men were whipped in a park elsewhere in Tehran. They had been charged with drinking alcohol and publicly harassing women.
The incidents, among a total of five reported public floggings since the start of July in Tehran, have sparked a stream of objections by reformist organizations and leaders. The sight of public floggings had virtually disappeared in the capital and other major cities in recent years. Their sudden return is both frightening and inexplicable to many residents.
RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan spoke with journalists in Iran to learn more about public reaction to the floggings. Fariborz Gharib, a reporter in Tehran, says that at a flogging he witnessed early this month in the capital, the reaction was disgust:
"[In early July] a court of the Islamic Republic sentenced 16 people to be flogged in public. The sentence was carried out in a very populous neighborhood. A lot of onlookers, including young people, gathered immediately. One very strong young man received his lashes then got up as if he were indifferent to being flogged. His manner elicited cheers from the crowd."
"As the onlookers realized that the accused were 16 ordinary people [like themselves], the atmosphere turned into a feeling of disgust and, finally into a riot. Disciplinary police had to attack the onlookers with batons and beat them and even arrested a few and took them off."
Such disapproval of the floggings has been echoed by top reformist leaders. The newspaper "Hambastegi" quoted Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari in a recent interview as saying he is against public whippings. He also said he was not aware of who is behind them.
Another paper, "Jomhouri-e Eslami," quoted Mousavi-Lari as saying the floggings are taking place despite the opposition of the government, President Mohammad Khatami, and the Supreme National Security Council. The paper said independently of the minister's remarks that the punishments are being ordered by individual judges exercising their right to independently issue verdicts and determine penalties.
Reuters today quoted Ali Taali, a top security official in Tehran, as saying from now on any court order for public flogging would have to be reviewed by a security body led by Mousavi-Lari. There has been no reaction yet from the Judiciary officials or judges and it remains unclear whether they will cooperate with the measure.
Abolfatah Soltani, a lawyer in Tehran, recently told RFE/RL's Ardalan that the Judiciary does not need to coordinate its activities with the reformist-led Interior Ministry:
"The Judiciary does not need to coordinate with or obtain permission from the Interior Ministry to carry out an order or punishment unless the punishment threatens public security or creates a social disturbance."
So far, reformists' criticisms of flogging show little sign of being heard by those carrying out the floggings. Three days ago, a new public whipping was reported in the western town of Borujerd, where five young men received 74 lashes each, plus fines, for disturbing public order and for blackmail and vandalism.
A reporter in Borujerd, who asked to remain anonymous, says the crowd gathered for the floggings showed no reaction, positive or negative, to the proceedings:
"The onlookers had come there without any prior notice and there were about 200, 250, 300 people, not very many. They were just watching. There was no particular reaction which I could say meant they were opposing it, or encouraging it, or condemning it. They might have whispered among themselves but they were just watching the flogging."
During the event, the head of the local Judiciary praised the practice of public punishment in remarks made to the IRNA news agency. The official, Hojjat Sabzevari, said "punishing criminals in public makes an example of them and discourages other such offenses."
Hard-liners, who dominate Iran's Judiciary, have previously blamed President Khatami's tolerant policies for what they say is a surge in petty crimes and un-Islamic behavior. They say Khatami's calls for greater social freedom have encouraged young people to defy strict social rules in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Khatami won a landslide election to a second presidential term in early June.
As the debate over flogging continues, it is likely the punishments will continue in public -- rather than in prisons, as is more usual -- so long as hard-line judges feel free to impose their own sentences for morality offenses.
That may mean that the only way to stop the return of public floggings will be a continuing negative reaction from those gathered to watch the events.
Another Tehran lawyer, Mohammad Ali Safari, says public outcry is likely to grow. He says: "People cannot bear these kinds of actions. They may accept flogging as a punishment, but flogging in public and watching another person's dignity being destroyed is another matter."