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Dissident's Imprisonment Widens Political Gap in Iran

The New York Times
December 6, 1999

The five-year prison sentence imposed nine days ago on one of Iran's most popular reform politicians has deepened the divide between an increasingly impatient democratic reform movement and conservative Muslim clerics determined to uphold an autocratic version of Islamic rule. (Related photos here)

Student protests against the sentence continued Sunday, and Abdullah Nouri, the high-ranking cleric who was jailed on heresy charges, sent a message from prison that he was holding firm to his refusal to appeal, as a matter of principle. At the same time, word came from the clerical court that condemned him that it was considering new prosecutions of Nouri's associates on a reformist Tehran newspaper.

Nouri, who was tried for publishing articles deemed to challenge the Islamic system of government, is serving his sentence at Evin Prison in Tehran, a hillside fortress used for criminal and political prisoners. His lawyer, Mohsen Rahami, has said that Nouri is sharing a 6 1/2-foot by 10-foot cell with three other prisoners, all dissident clerics.

Before the Special Court for the Clergy handed down its sentence, Nouri said a prison term would only hasten the end of the deeply unpopular system of clerical rule, which has resisted change so far. Already, there are signs that the powerful clerics who wanted Nouri silenced may only have made a martyr of him and inflamed the feelings of Iranians who want change.

After 20 years of repression, any public demonstration against the ruling clergy carries risks, as students at Tehran University discovered in July when they were attacked by police officers and Islamic vigilantes in their campus dormitories.

Three students were killed.

Nonetheless, Nouri's imprisonment has prompted several demonstrations, the most daring of them a protest Sunday at the Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran, where 800 students rallied for two hours in support of the jailed cleric.

Some of the students appeared with tape over their mouths, Agence France-Presse reported, to symbolize the silencing of Nouri, who was to have led the reform slate of candidates in parliamentary elections scheduled for February. Spokesmen for the demonstrators castigated "the negative characters" who made up the nine-man jury at the trial, all of them conservative clerics close to Iran's supreme religious leader and paramount political authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

After a two-week trial, the jury unanimously found Nouri guilty on 15 counts that included "insulting Islam," defying its most basic beliefs, insulting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi in 1979, and "propagating" in support of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States and Israel.

Together, the charges were considered to amount to heresy, and Nouri, 50, could have been sentenced to death. Instead, he got five years imprisonment, a $5,000 fine, the closure of his newspaper, Khordad, and a five-year ban on all political activity.

But even before the verdict, the decision to put him on trial had begun to look like a blunder by the conservatives around Khamenei, who ultimately controls the court. Nouri used the hearings, which were held in open court, as a platform to promote the reform cause and mock the hard-line clerics. He described them as, among other things, usurpers for reneging on promises of democracy after the shah's downfall in 1979 and delivering a repressive system that, he said, defied basic precepts of the Koran, Islam's holy book.

Although conditions in Evin prison are notoriously harsh -- the prison was used for hundreds of executions in the early stages of Islamic rule -- Nouri has sent out word that he still sees his sentence as a problem for Islamic conservatives. His father, Mohammed Ali Nouri, who visited the prison yesterday, said afterward that he "will not compromise his principles or convictions" and "will stick it out to the end," Agence France-Presse reported.

Nouri's remarks from prison appeared to indicate that he continues to oppose moves to file an appeal, a step he said before his conviction he would not take.

Rahami, his lawyer, was quoted in a Tehran newspaper yesterday as saying that he would urge Nouri to change is mind before the appeal deadline on Dec. 17.

Another option being discussed among reformers in Iran -- and among conservatives who fear that Nouri's continued imprisonment could lead to wider disturbances, possibly even to the kind of rioting that preceded the shah's downfall -- is for Ayatollah Khamenei to issue a pardon.

Rahami, the defense counsel, who is also a cleric, told reporters in Tehran yesterday that the clerical hierarchy "should realize that keeping Nouri in prison is not in the national interest." But the signs so far have been that the clerics who decided to place Nouri on trial remain adamantly opposed to backing down. Most Iranians believe Khamenei must have been directly involved, given his control of the courts and the judiciary, and his direct responsibility for the clergy court.

Indeed, the cleric who is the court's chief judge, Mohseni Ejei, said yesterday, Agence France-Presse reported, that he intended to widen the court's action by prosecuting the writers of articles in Nouri's newspaper.

This would amount to a judicial version of killing the messenger bringing unwelcome news, since many of the articles cited in the Nouri trial were news accounts of events and statements unwelcome to conservatives. One of them reported on another Tehran newspaper's decision to publish part of a 1999 New Year's message to the Iranian people by Farah Diba, the former empress, who now lives in Europe.

Many Iranians are perplexed by the conflicting signals given in recent months by Ayatollah Khamenei, who has alternated between actions that suggest an acceptance of the need for reform and other moves, including the Nouri trial, that point in the other direction. A common conclusion has been that Khamenei is caught between reformers, led by Nouri and President Mohammad Khatami, and conservatives who anointed Khamenei when his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, died in 1989.

In effect, these Iranians say, Khamenei has arrived at a critical point as the February elections approach. If Nouri had been left at liberty to lead the reformers in the election, many Iranians believe he would have repeated the landslide victory Khatami scored in the 1997 presidential vote, opening the way for constitutional changes that could have eroded, or ended, the paramount powers wielded by Khamenei.

To pardon Nouri now, these Iranians say, would be tantamount to conceding victory to the reformers in the February elections.


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form

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