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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 establishment.

``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 form.

``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 last month.

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 Manateq-e Azad.

``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,'' Leylaz said.


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