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Who Is Waging War Against God In Iran?

A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi in Tehran, June 2009
A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi in Tehran, June 2009
How did Mohammad Amin Valian, a 20-year-old student from Damghan, land in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) infamous Special Detention Center No. 209 of Tehran’s Evin Prison?

Valian comes from a religious family and is a member of his university’s reformist Islamic Students' Association. In late December, on the Ashura remembrance day, he heeded a call by the opposition to go into the streets and join the city's Green Movement supporters chanting "Death to the dictator!"

Ashura evolved into a broad show of power by the opposition, which has been demonstrating sporadically since the disputed June 2009 presidential election. On that day, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Tehran and other cities. The IRGC and the Basij militia attacked the crowds and beat and dispersed demonstrators. About 10 were killed and a few hundred were arrested.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reacted in panic and gave his final (although still implicit) approval for the authorities to suppress any individual or group opposition "to protect the Islamic system." His executors in government and the security forces were more direct in restating the supreme leader’s message: Anybody opposing the leader or the government is a "mohareb, a person “waging war against God."

And a mohareb, in their interpretation, deserves death.

Valian was not fighting against God. In fact, how could a person "wage war against God" anyway? But in a country dominated by the absolute authority of an unelected clerical supreme leader, God is the government, and protesting against the government is the same as waging a war against God. Those who chant "death to the dictator" -- implying the supreme leader -- must be stopped, even if it means handing down death sentences.

Valian wasn’t arrested on Ashura. He returned home and went back to his studies. But a week later, a group of fellow university students -- members of the Basij militia -- distributed a photo that they claimed showed Valian demonstrating with a stone in his hand. They called for him to be punished, and on January 12, he was hustled away from his home and taken to Tehran.

No one -- not even his parents -- could find out where Valian was taken or whether any legal proceedings had been opened against him. After repeated inquiries, his family was told he was “being detained in a special location.” No one would be allowed to visit him. He was not allowed to choose a lawyer.

On January 25, the Tehran Judiciary announced that five more individuals had been sentenced to death in connection with the Ashura protests. They did not release the names of the condemned, but Iranian opposition sources were soon reporting that one of them was Mohammad Amin Valian from Damghan.

On March 2, the Judiciary finally announced that Valian had been convicted and sentenced to death and that an appeals court had upheld his sentence. He was accused of throwing stones at security forces at the Ashura demonstrations -- waging war against God. In justifying its action, the court referred to a speech by Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi in which he purportedly said that all “desecrators of Ashura” and “protesters against the Islamic regime” are “mohareb” and deserve death. The Judiciary statement said Valian “could be executed at any time.”

Opposition Ayatollah Yusef Sane’i reacted quickly. He issued a religious ruling (fatwa) saying that participating in demonstrations alone is not equivalent to “waging war against God,” but rather it is “mandatory for Muslims to oppose injustice.” Another opposition cleric, Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani, stated that it is not protesters but “those who attack people and bludgeon them” who should be considered mohareb.

Regime Split

Even some conservative clerics reacted negatively to the Judiciary’s ruling. Makarem Shirazi denied issuing the statement that the Judiciary cited, going on record as saying: “We have never issued [the alleged fatwa] against such people [the protesters].” He accused “some people” of “using this and other tactics to weaken the institution of marja [religious sources of reference].”

In the wake of this development, the attorney general of the Public and Revolutionary Courts announced that the ruling of the appeals court “is not final,” contradicting an earlier official announcement. A lawyer hired by Valian’s family told an Iranian news agency that “the case has not yet been sent to the appeals court.”

The guessing game goes on. Will Valian be executed? Nobody knows.

Following the supreme leader’s December speech calling for an end to the “war against God,” regime supporters turned up the volume of their rhetoric. They began insisting the regime is in danger and that the moharebs must be shown no mercy. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of the powerful Assembly of Experts, called on the government, Judiciary, and security forces to persecute ever single mohareb in the country.

Ahmad Khatami, like Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi (also on the Assembly of Experts) and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (of the Guardians Council), is among those who really pull the strings in Iran. They all believe that the supreme leader of the Islamic republic is acting in the absence and on the behalf of the 12th Imam Mahdi, who Shi’ite Muslims believe went into hiding in the 9th century and who will return to bring global justice to earth. Ayatollah Yazdi has reportedly said: “The Islamic republic and the [supreme] leader’s authority does not stem from the people or from popular votes, but from a divine mission from God and the Hidden Imam.”

No wonder they feel no compunction against detaining people for weeks without informing their families or allowing them access to lawyers. No wonder they are satisfied with farcical and self-serving legal processes.

I asked a friend of mine, a lawyer living in Tehran, about the Valian case. “Political cases like this are extremely sensitive,” he told me. “Fatwas back and forth. But people’s lives ultimately depend on those who are in power. They set the tone at the very top and the Judiciary executes their policies.”

In Iran, the tone has been set. Valian and dozens of others are in legal limbo and could be executed at any moment without due process or the opportunity to defend themselves. They can be tortured until they confess their “crimes.” In the name of God.

Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.