Judiciary takes aim at Khatami reforms
By Jonathan Lyons
TEHRAN, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Iran's hardline judiciary has taken aim at
the reformist policies of President Mohammad Khatami, proposing a restrictive
law on ``political crimes'' and defending its tough new line against journalists.
A draft bill presented to the cabinet late on Monday in the waning
days of judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a leading conservative,
defines a political crime as any action ``against the sovereignty of the
Islamic republic, the political system or the political and social rights
of the people.''
The official IRNA news agency said examples of such crimes attached
to the draft, which now goes before the cabinet, include ``the exchange
of any kind of information with foreign embassies (and) foreign media...which
may jeopardise the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran.''
IRNA did not report the proposed penalties for such crimes.
Critics say the draft law, which follows last month's pro-democracy
unrest, aims to muzzle the nascent civil society gradually ushered in by
Khatami since his 1997 landslide victory over the candidate of the conservative
``An interview with any foreign media is a crime,'' read a banner headline
on Tuesday in the pro-reform Manateq-e Azad newspaper.
A legal scholar told Reuters the bill violated the constitution and
was unlikely to be accepted by the moderate Khatami cabinet in its current
``Many of the examples of political crimes in this bill are ill-defined
as crimes, let alone as political crimes,'' said the scholar, who asked
not to be identified. ``This bill does not conform with the requirements
of the constitution.''
Conservatives, including senior officials of the judiciary and the
security forces, have blamed the pro-democracy student protests that culminated
in street riots on July 13 on outside agitators taking advantage of the
new social and political freedoms promoted by the president and his reformist
allies in the press.
They have also turned up the pressure on the flourishing independent
press, fostered by Khatami as part of his campaign to construct a civil
society within Iran's existing Islamic system.
On Monday, the head of the Press Court -- appointed by the chief of
the judiciary -- served notice that he was prepared to prosecute any journalist
charged with insulting Islamic or Revolutionary values. In the past, prosecutions
for newspaper articles were generally aimed at the publication's managing
director and not at individual journalists.
Judge Saeed Mortezavi told a news conference that four articles of
the press law -- covering military secrets, national security, or insults
against the Islamic system or the supreme clerical leader -- exposed individual
correspondents to fines or even jail sentences.
``In these four articles, besides the managing director, those who
prepared the article are viewed as accomplices and are subject to prosecution,''
Mortezavi said. ``If there are complaints with regards to these four articles
then we would follow up on it and prosecute.''
Pro-Khatami forces, caught off guard by the virulence of the week-long
unrest, have watched helplessly as leading reformist newspapers have been
closed or their senior editors prosecuted by the conservative-dominated
courts. In fact, it was a ban on the leading reformist daily Salam that
set in motion the pro-democracy unrest that shook the Islamic republic
Analysts and legal experts say the proposed bill on political crimes
reflects Iran's volatile political atmosphere.
The measure had its roots in demands by reformers dating back a number
of years for legal definitions of the so-called 'red lines', spelling out
the limits of political, theological and social debate in Iran. Now, those
same pro-reform forces are on the defensive.
``With the introduction of this new bill, one can hope that from now
on all political and press activists know where the 'red lines' of the
esteemed officials of the judiciary are,'' wrote editor Saeed Leylaz in
``Next to this positive point, there is serious anxiety among neutral
observers that in such an insecure political environment... from now on
a fearful atmosphere will be created which would lead to further arrests,''