Human Rights Developments
There was continued
struggle between reformists and conservatives over the political direction
of the Islamic republic leading to new human rights abuses,
notably violations of freedom of expression. Reformist candidates
supporting President Khatami won a significant victory in February's parliamentary
elections, hailed as the fairest in
The early part of the year was dominated by elections for the sixth Majles (Islamic Consultative Assembly). Parliamentary elections in 1996 had been marred when the Council of Guardians vetoed more than 44 percent of the candidates. This year the council, a government-appointed body of twelve senior clerics and legal experts, vetoed less than 10 percent of the candidates. Of 6,083 candidates who stood for election to the 290 seats, 576 were disqualified. Despite the exclusion of representatives of parties opposed to, or openly critical of, clerical rule, Iranians were presented with a choice of candidates representing a range of views.
maneuvered, however, to limit the extent of the reformist victory, and blocked
high-profile reformists from running as candidates in a variety of ways. Abdullah Nouri, the impeached former
minister of the interior, publisher of the prominent daily newspaper Khordad,
and reformist candidate for speaker, was brought to trial in November 1999
However, he used his trial as an opportunity to advocate reform, reminding his conservative accusers that they could not impose their own interpretation of Islam and challenging the religious and legal authority of the court, which he likened to an inquisition. Nouri's statements, which included favorable reference to Ayatollah Montazeri's criticisms of the velayet-e faqih (rule of the supreme jurist) were widely reported in the opposition press. Nevertheless, Nouri was convicted, sentenced to five years of imprisonment, and disqualified from standing in the election.
In January, the Council of Guardians removed other prominent reformists from the list of candidates, including Abbas Abdi, a leader of the 1989 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which occasioned the hostage crisis, who had since then taken public steps to reconcile with his former captives. Candidates from the opposition Iran Freedom Movement, including its leader Ebrahim Yazdi, were again banned from participating in the elections.
Mahmoud Ali Chehregani,
an advocate of the rights of the Azeri minority, was prevented from registering
as a candidate for the election in
On March 12, a gunman shot and severely wounded Saeid Hajjarian, a director of Sobh-e Emrouz, the reformist newspaper that had taken the lead in exposing the involvement of state officials in extrajudicial executions of dissident intellectuals. He was also a leading political advisor to President Khatami, and regarded as the architect of the reformists' February electoral triumph. His assailant escaped from the scene of the shooting on a motorcycle of the type reserved for use by security forces and police at the scene made no attempt to apprehend him, raising suspicion that he was acting in collaboration with members of the security forces. However, the assailant was arrested soon afterwards and, together with four co-conspirators, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment.
The attempt on
Hajjarian's life heightened fears that paramilitary death squads were at work
within the state apparatus. A group of police officers charged with an attack
State officials accused of involvement in the murder of dissidents and intellectuals at the end of 1998 have not yet been tried in public. In September, a statement from the judiciary, published in the press, announced the beginning of court proceedings against eighteen former ministry of information officials accused of involvement in the killings. Only two of the accused were in detention. Lawyers for the victims' families, who were granted access to prosecution files, complained that the files were still incomplete and raised questions about what had happened to material gathered during two years of investigations.
Conservatives mounted a concerted campaign to close independent newspapers in order to weaken the reformists' influence. In the absence of formal political parties, newspapers were key agents for mobilizing popular support for the reformist cause, with many leading reformists publishing their own newspapers, which acted as forums for wide-ranging discussion of issues confronting the country. The press had been a major factor in the reformists' electoral success and, increasingly, was exposing corruption within the ruling conservative elite and its involvement in gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions of dissidents. The conservatives' action against the press dealt a devastating blow to what had been one of the few visible achievements of the reform movement, a vibrant, independent print media.
The reformist movement was far from monolithic. It included both Islamist democrats, who advocated a more responsive political system, and others who more directly challenged the clergy's central role in politics and the notion that the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic should have absolute power to determine divinely ordained policy.
In April, conservative
elements within the judiciary began to close down independent newspapers and
magazines, and to imprison leading journalists and editors. On April 10,
Mashallah Shamsol-Vaezin, a pioneer of independent media and editor of a
succession of banned titles, was imprisoned for thirty months on the grounds
that an article he had published criticizing the death penalty defamed Islam. On
April 22, Akbar Ganji, a leading investigative
journalist for Fath newspaper, was imprisoned by the
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, while endorsing "the free flow of information," openly condoned the action taken against the press accusing some un-named titles of being "bases of the enemy." Following this lead, conservatives redoubled their attacks on reformists as agents of hostile alien forces, and the last remaining major independent daily, Bahar, was closed down in August. Ayatollah Jannati, a member of the Council of Guardians, remarked that closing down the newspapers was "the best thing the judiciary had done since the revolution."
In April, leading
Iranian reformist politicians attended an international conference on
With the reformist press
suppressed, conservatives were emboldened to tamper with the election results. In
May, the Council of Guardians nullified the results in eleven
constituencies and canceled 726,000 of the more than three million votes cast
in the Tehran constituency, without explanation. For the clerical
establishment, the most em
When the new Majles convened in late May the reformists controlled some 150 of the 290 seats, but it was unclear whether the diverse factions of the reformist bloc would be able to operate as a unified voting group. Many reformists appeared chastened by the conservative backlash and anxious to reassure conservatives that change would not undermine the foundations of the state. Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric with a long history of senior government service, was elected speaker as a candidate acceptable to all factions.
The new parliament promised to amend the repressive press law passed in the closing months of the previous parliament. The law required applicants for new newspaper licenses to obtain prior approval from the judiciary, closing a previous loophole that had enabled banned newspapers to reopen days later under a new name. The law also facilitated the closure of newspapers on vaguely worded charges of "insulting Islam" or "undermining the religious foundation of the republic," leaving the press court with wide discretion to censor titles of which it disapproved. Reformists drafted a new bill that would better protect press freedom but this was vehemently attacked by conservatives as un-Islamic and likely to spread corruption in society. On August 6, Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the parliament to drop its consideration of a new press law. This unprecedented intervention in the legislative process by the supreme leader was accepted by Speaker Karroubi, averting open conflict between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, which was anyway expected to veto the proposed new law.
Other early actions by the new parliament indicated a pragmatic approach. New legislation to facilitate access by foreign investors to the Iranian market passed unanimously, indicating a shared recognition that the country's severe economic problems needed government attention. Reformist pledges to carry out public inquiries into the attack on student dormitories remained unfulfilled, however. On a positive note, a parliamentary commission carried out an investigation into prison conditions, visiting prisons in different parts of the country. The publication of the commission's findings, scheduled for mid-October, was delayed, reportedly because of their critical tone and exposure of torture.
Former detainees, arrested after the student disturbances in July 1999, informed Human Rights Watch that they were tortured and sexually abused while in prison in 1999 and early 2000. Ahmad Batebi, a student sentenced to thirteen years of imprisonment, wrote a letter to the head of the judiciary that was published in the international press, protesting beating and lashing that he had suffered while in detention.
Unfulfilled expectations were the cause of several clashes between demonstrators and hardline conservative supporters and the security forces. On the anniversary of the student demonstrations of July 1999, students marched and were joined by other demonstrators expressing their frustration at poor economic conditions. The protesters in Tehran were beaten by the self-styled partisans of the party of God, ansar-e hezbollahi, and forcibly dispersed.
More serious clashes occurred in the provincial town of Khorramabad in West Azerbaijan province in late August. Two leading reformist thinkers, Abdol Karim Soroush and Mohssen Kadivar, were prevented by hezbollahis armed with clubs and knives from attending a student convention in the town at which they were due to give speeches. There followed a week of street clashes between students and hardlinevigilantes in which a police officer was killed and dozens of people were injured, requiring hospital treatment. Townspeople joined in the protests on the side of the students. One hundred and fifty protesters, mostly students, were detained after these disturbances.
Hardline vigilantes were
less active in the early part of the year, partly because the judiciary
was more actively targeting reformists. On April 14, the supreme leader
condoned "legal-violence" against the "bases of the enemy"
and "centers of corruption," suggesting that the vigilantes should
act only when the judiciary and the legal authorities were not doing enough to
maintain order. His remarks at Friday prayers contained a
A former vigilante, Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, stated in a videotape that vigilantes had received payments from senior clerics in order to carry out attacks on reformist personalities and to disrupt public events. He was sentenced in October, after a closed trial, to two years of imprisonment for defamation of public officials. His lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, and another lawyer, Mohssen Rahami, who had received a copy of the tape, were given suspended prison sentences and banned from practicing law for five years. False allegations were made by the conservative press that a Human Rights Watch researcher had been involved in the production and dissemination of the tape, but no formal charges were made against her.
The April trial in Shiraz of thirteen Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel was conducted against this background of factional conflict. The factual basis of the case against the accused remained shrouded in mystery even after ten of them were convicted of forming an illegal organization and maintaining contacts with Israel, a hostile foreign power. While the trial was in progress, defendants gave interviews on state-controlled television in which they confessed to espionage. These confessions were contested by their lawyer, however, and appear not to have formed part of the court proceedings.
The trial, before a revolutionary court, was unfair. It was conducted in closed session, and observers, including a representative of Human Rights Watch, were denied access to the proceedings. Before trial, the defendants were held incommunicado for many months, during which the statements that formed the basis for their conviction were taken from them by the judge in his dual role as prosecutor as well as judge. The defendants, three of whom were acquitted at trial, were allowed access to legal counsel only once they had confessed.
Yet, in some respects, the trial of the Jews was uncharacteristically transparent by the standards of Iran's revolutionary courts. The trial judge met with journalists, diplomats, and human rights observers and answered questions about the case. Whereas most defendants tried before such courts are denied all access to legal counsel, in the Shiraz trial, principal defense lawyer Esmail Naseri openly challenged the validity of his clients' confessions, made while they were denied access to their lawyer, and pointed out the absence of other incriminating evidence. After the July sentencing of ten of the defendants to prison terms of between two and thirteen years, Naseri commented that, by law, they should be released pending an appeal because of the many procedural violations in the prosecution process, but that he feared political interference would rule this out. Then, in September, days before the result of the appeal was due to be announced Naseri told a press conference that he had been pressured to withdraw his objections to his clients' confessions and told that they would choose new lawyers if he refused to do so. He said that the thirteen had been held in prolonged solitary confinement until they were disorientated and willing to incriminate themselves, and that he would reveal the source of the pressure and threats against him if his clients' confessions were upheld. In September, the appeals court upheld the convictions but reduced the sentences to between two and six years. In October, the defendants allowed the deadline for filing an appeal to the Supreme Court to pass, and dismissed their defense lawyers without explanation.
While all Iranian leaders took exception to international criticism of the case, stressing that the judicial process should be allowed to take its course, President Khatami repeatedly emphasized that the Jewish community formed an integral part of Iranian society. In August, he received leaders of the Iranian Jewish community and relatives of the Shiraz defendants.
Other minority religious communities continued to be subjected to persecution. In February, three Bahais, Sirus Zabihi-Moghadam, Hedayat Kashefi-Najafabadi and Manouchehr Khulusi, were sentenced to death, apparently because of their religious activities. Two of the three had been detained since 1997 for violating the ban on Bahai religious gatherings. The details of the third man's detention were not known.
The Iraq-based armed opposition group, the People's Mojahedine Organization of Iran, continued to carry out attacks against targets inside Iran. Although the organization claimed to be targeting officials, several civilians were killed or injured in incidents, such as a mortar attack on the presidential office in downtown Tehran in February.