Dissident's Imprisonment Widens Political Gap in Iran
By JOHN F. BURNS
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
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
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
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
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
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.