Washington Post, November 18, 2000
Author: Molly Moore wrote...
The tone of Moghadas's declarations from the bench, made during a session Tuesday, apparently is not unusual in the Revolutionary Court, which hears all national security cases. What is extraordinary is that for the first time, the courtroom exchanges are taking place before national and international television cameras in open court, providing a rare window onto how one of Iran's most powerful conservative institutions is waging war against the reforms ushered in with Khatami's election three years ago.
In recent months, Iran's judiciary--controlled by hard-line Islamic
clerics--has repeatedly hobbled the moderate cleric's reform efforts,
putting journalists on trial in its press courts and lodging a range of
stifling charges against reformers in its Revolutionary Court.
"They have tried to use the judiciary to torpedo the process of change
and reform in Iran," said Davood Bavand, a Tehran law professor and
political analyst who supports the reform effort. "The instrument of
power has been in their hands."
But in the last two weeks, even the hard-line judiciary has indicated
that its leadership may not be completely impervious to change.
"We need to undertake serious, prudent reforms in the judiciary,"
judiciary chief Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi said in a public meeting last
week. "The judiciary is suffering from an old justice system dating back
to the despotic regime of the shah, which made it difficult for
independent and committed judges to function."
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by Islamic revolutionaries 21
years ago. In the last two decades, international human rights
organizations have consistently criticized Iran's judiciary for holding
unfair, secret trials; jailing and executing prisoners without due
process and violating international standards for granting defendants
access to attorneys and basic information about charges against them.
This month, under unusually harsh pressure from reformist politicians,
international human rights organizations and even the government-financed Iranian press, the Revolutionary Court announced it would open the trial of 17 reformist writers, politicians, intellectuals and others who attended a conference in Berlin dedicated to transformation inside the Islamic republic.
Just 4 1/2 months ago, the court's decision to publicly announce its
verdicts in the closed trial of 10 Jews and two Muslims on espionage
charges was considered ground-breaking. The court said its decision to go a step further and open the trials was based on "multiple demands."
One of Iran's best known investigative journalists, Akbar Ganji, appeared in court last week alleging that he had been put in solitary confinement and was beaten for refusing to wear a prison uniform. Referring to his case, the daily Iran News editorialized, "The judiciary should sit up and take notice. It should be concerned about what goes on in our prisons," adding, "Public opinion . . . is exasperated and edgy."
Ganji last year wrote exposes that linked government officials to murders
of secularist intellectuals. He is on trial for acting against national
security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic system at the
During his hearing last week, he told Judge Moghadas, "The political will exists to put me behind bars and you are just sitting there to carry this out."
While reformers decry the judicial system, they concede some advances
have been made.
Alireza Nouri, a vascular surgeon who was elected to parliament on the
reformist slate, largely because of an outpouring of public support for
his brother--another jailed journalist--noted that reporters and others
who defied the government in the past often were killed.
"Now they're just put in jail," said Nouri. "We can say we have taken one step forward."
In the euphoria of elections that gave reformers control of the Iranian
parliament in February, the offers to participate in the conference
seemed fairly innocuous to the 17 people invited. The invitation list
included some of Iran's most outspoken reformers: a popular new
legislator, an independent-minded cleric, a folklore novelist, a
well-known women's rights advocate and more than a dozen others.
But during the conference, in a protest against Iran, a man in the
audience stripped off his shirt and then mooned the crowd while a woman
stood in a short-sleeve blouse and began dancing--both actions considered insulting to Islamic sensibilities. Fariborz Raisdana, an economist who supports the reform effort, said he had heard rumblings of possible demonstrations before the conference, but said, "I didn't expect them to do a strip tease and dance."
Iranian government television ran clips of the incident repeatedly on
news programs, cutting to shots of participants, some of whom reportedly were not in the room at the time. Within hours of returning to Tehran from the convention, Raisdana and 16 others were arrested on charges ranging from waging war on God--punishable by death--to violating national security.
In the opening session of the trials two weeks ago, acting prosecutor
Ahmad Sharifi alleged, "The conference was held with the aim of changing Iran's system of religious government, insulting the sanctities and rejecting Islamic judgments."
In Tuesday's session, the judge--playing the role of lead
prosecutor--spent much of the day berating defendant Ezzatollah Sahabi, a veteran independent politician who was jailed upon his return from Berlin and eventually released on bail. Although the Revolutionary Court recently created the position of prosecutors in trials, the judge rarely permitted the prosecutor to speak. In one of those few instances, the prosecutor snapped at Sahabi, "You think you can say anything and trample Islamic values under your feet."
"The things I was saying were true," replied Sahabi at the end of the day beneath the television cameras in the sweltering courtroom. "We went to cities to give speeches and security forces tried to beat us up."
In a reply that disappointed some of Sahabi's fellow defendants, he
added, "What I said was too straightforward. I'm ready to pay the price."