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Iran: New 'Morality Police' Units Generate Controversy

By Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin

Over the past month, Tehran residents have watched a new group of uniformed men begin patrolling the capital's streets in black four-wheel-drive vehicles. The men have severely beaten several young people, but until this week, there was no official word on just who the uniformed men are. Now, the Iranian police department has officially announced they are a new morality force to combat what they call social corruption among the young.

Prague, 25 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The new men in uniform have attracted a lot of attention in Tehran since they started driving around the streets in their black four-wheel-drive vehicles about four weeks ago.

One reason they were noticed was that their cars -- unlike many official vehicles in the capital -- were shiny and new, indicating that they were some kind of elite force. Another reason was the way they were dressed: with black berets to match the color of their cars and -- according to some witnesses -- not just small arms but a grenade strapped to the waist.

The elite force's trappings immediately gave rise to all sorts of popular speculation regarding its function. Some rumors suggested they were paratroopers specializing in antiterrorism and even that they were bomb experts, trained in spotting and defusing explosives.

But the activities of the new force -- which numbers several hundred men -- seemed to have little to do with safeguarding the public against violent threats. Instead, they appeared mainly interested in chasing down young people who were listening to music or, in the case of young women, wearing makeup or less than full-length outer garments over their clothing.

At the end of last month, passers-by were horrified to see a group of the new policemen catch a young woman dressed in a knee-length white outer coat that was a little short of the standard length prescribed by the Islamic Republic's female dress code. The dress code is intended to ensure females maintain a modest public appearance in accordance with religious values.

One eyewitness, who gave his name as Hussein, described the attack to RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent Mahmonir Rahimi: "They are in green uniforms, they have a grenade at the waist, submachine guns, black berets and new black Toyotas. One of them stopped a woman who was wearing a short, white overcoat, criticized her for her makeup, then kicked her so hard between the legs that blood spattered and turned the coat red. One searched her pocket while another grabbed her head and banged it on his car window and her blood was smudged on the window. Then he released her, but told her to wipe the blood off the window of his car."

This week, the police department officially informed the public as to the identity of the new patrolmen. Hassan Zakeri, the public relations chief of the Iranian police department, told the evening "Etelaat" newspaper that "60 special patrols have been formed to deal with obvious offenses in society."

He said that the new force is concentrating on arresting drug addicts and cracking down on people who harass women and exhibit un-Islamic behavior. Un-Islamic behavior includes males and females who are not related walking in public together, parties, listening to music, and drinking alcohol -- all punishable by fines, jail terms, or flogging.

That makes the elite force -- whose name is simply "the Special Units," or Yegan-i Vizhe -- the newest group among an already large number of volunteer, semiofficial, and regular police organizations that concern themselves with enforcing public morality.

These range from vigilantes affiliated with the fundamentalist Ansar-i Hezbollah group -- who roam through parks and shopping areas to upbraid and sometimes beat unrelated couples -- to quasi-state units tasked with the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice which raid house parties and arrest guests. They also include police tasked with inspecting public places like restaurants to assure no parties are held or music played there.

But if one more addition to the already large number of morality patrolmen in Iran might seem unremarkable, the deliberate high visibility of the new force, and its violence, have made it immediately controversial.

Late last month, the reformist daily "Noruz" called in editorials for official explanations as to why the new force was created, what its precise responsibilities are, and how it will carry those out. The paper also questioned the need for the police to arrest "every day in every district [of the capital] tens of young people" over laws on dress and behavior, and warned that such actions risk alienating the youth.

The critics have also included reformist members of parliament and, according to some reports, the Intelligence Ministry, which has asked the police to withdraw the Special Units from Tehran's streets.

Some observers in Tehran say that the criticism seems to be having some effect. Nemat Ahmedi, a Tehran lawyer, says that in recent days the new force has become less visible on the streets, possibly in response to the outcry. "It didn't take even a month before their public presence was reduced because they invade people's privacy, they had to have a warrant of arrest from a judge and [without the warrants] there was the possibility of skirmishes. Officials such as parliamentary deputies [and from] the Supreme National Security Council got involved, and [top security official] Sardar Ghalibaf was made to answer to criticisms."

The presence of new special forces charged with enforcing public order is particularly sensitive for reformists because their deployment comes as part of a continuing hard-line-led crackdown against reformist demands for greater political and personal freedoms.

That crackdown has seen the closure of scores of reformist papers including, this week, an appeals court upholding a lower court's banning of the largest reformist paper, "Noruz." It also has revived what many reformists see as the objectionable practice of public floggings and hangings. In one dramatic case last summer, some 45 men arrested for drinking alcohol or accompanying women other than their relatives were flogged publicly in scenes seen by thousands of families driving out of the capital to weekend recreation spots.

The emergence of the new, highly motivated Special Units also underlines the fact that hard-liners -- who control the country's Judiciary and security forces -- can continue to draw on large numbers of young people in the society who have conservative values and are willing to crack down on those who seek change.

Lawyer Ahmedi says some early rumors that the new Special Units were recruited from non-Iranians or among sons of particularly economically deprived families are unfounded. He says that, instead, they appear to be drawn from the hundreds of thousands of draftees and university graduates who enter the military each year and stay on with the security forces, which provides secure employment.

"I think this is just a rumor that they are from other countries. They are Iranians. They are draftees, they enter at age 18 and they serve in the army. We have a young society, there are people and families that are pro-military and would like their male children to join the military when they enter the job market."

The need to find a secure job is increasingly important because some two-thirds of Iran's population is under 30 but the country's socialist-style economy is not growing fast enough to generate sufficient new jobs. The British weekly "The Economist" reported last month that some 1 million Iranians enter the labor market each year, but there are jobs for less than half of them. Unemployment is unofficially estimated at 18 percent and rising.