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Court Silences Iran Reformist With Jail Term

The New York Times
December 28, 1999

Iran's most powerful religious court Saturday imposed a five-year jail term and a five-year banishment from political activity on a Muslim cleric, Abdullah Nouri, who is a close ally of Iran's reformist president and has won wide popular support with demands for an end to authoritarian rule by the religious hierarchy.

The court also ordered the immediate closing of the newspaper run by the cleric, Khordad, which has been one of the most effective voices of the country's increasingly impatient democratic movement, and imposed a fine of 15 million rials, equivalent to $5,000. The sentence for the 50-year-old cleric included 74 lashes with a braided leather whip, but under complex sentencing rules that part of the sentence was set aside in favor of an alternate punishment of a year in jail, to be served concurrently with his five-year term.

In addition, Nouri, who has been compared by Iranian reformers to Martin Luther, the 16th century German cleric who was excommunicated after challenging the Roman Catholic hierarchy, was barred from having any role in publishing or writing for publication for five years. In official terms, the barring effectively made a nonperson of a politician who is seen by many Iranians as the bravest of all standard-bearers for democratic reform.

Nouri, a personal friend of President Muhammad Khatami, who is also a cleric, was led from the courtroom by armed guards and taken directly to Evin Prison, the grim mountainside fortress where many of the shah's allies were imprisoned and executed after the 1979 Islamic revolution. In recent years, many of its inmates have been former revolutionaries like Nouri who have fallen afoul of conservatives determined to uphold a hard-line version of Islamic rule.

The route to the prison through the northern suburbs of Tehran, the capital, a distance of about a mile, was lined with police officers apparently called out to deter demonstrations in support of Nouri, residents of the area said by telephone. The cleric's supporters immediately demanded that President Khatami step in to rescue Nouri, who had been the leading reform candidate in parliamentary elections set for February.

But it was not clear that Khatami had the power to intervene. Since his election in a landslide 30 months ago, the president has been largely stymied by conservative clerics who control most important levers of power in Iran.

The 53-year-old president, who won nearly 70 percent of the 30 million votes cast in 1997, has himself been walking a narrow line politically, seeking incremental reforms, but virtually checkmated by conservatives allied to the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This week, the country's shadowy intelligence ministry announced that it had arrested 20 religious hard-liners on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Khatami and other leading political figures.

Nouri himself maintained a scornful attitude toward the court and a seeming indifference to his own fate, which characterized his defiant speeches at his trial before the Special Court for the Clergy this month. This week, he told reporters he would not appeal the court's sentence and predicted that the trial would only accelerate demands for sweeping changes in Iran's political system that would take power from the religious authorities and bestow it, under a democratic system, on Iran's 70 million people.

"It might take them a long time to learn this lesson, or it might take them a short time," Nouri said, referring to the ruling clerics. "What is clear, and beyond doubt, is that the case we have put before the court will have an effect, on society and the state. What we know for certain is that there will be change."

Nouri had no opportunity to speak to reporters after the sentencing, which was held behind closed doors, apparently after the court decided that it had been a mistake to open the two-week trial to the news media. That decision, made in an attempt to show that Nouri was being given a fair trial, backfired when Nouri dominated the hearings, using them to set out a powerful case against the religious dictatorship that has characterized Iran for 20 years.

The courtroom became the best platform the reformers have ever had, producing day after day of banner headlines in the reformist newspapers that have proliferated across Iran, and making Nouri even more popular than before. Eventually, two weeks ago, the clerics sitting in judgment on him -- a judge and a nine-man jury, all of them senior religious figures -- decided to cut their losses and bring the trial to an abrupt end.

One of Nouri's closest allies, Ali Hekmati, a cleric who is editor-in-chief of Khordad, the newspaper that the court banned, said he had spoken briefly to Nouri by mobile telephone after the sentencing and found him in a resolute mood. "He told me he was in good spirits," Hekmati said.

In Evin Prison, the scene of frequent firing squads in 1979 and 1980, Nouri will join dozens of other reformers, including the former mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi. Karbaschi was sentenced last year on disputed corruption charges, getting a two-year jail term and a 10-year political ban.

In an interview with another Tehran newspaper published Saturday, but before the sentencing, Nouri said that the clergy court, "if it wishes to act according to standards of fairness and justice," should acquit him and make a formal apology for having placed him on trial. As for the banning of his newspaper, he said it would matter little, since his associates would start another paper under a different name and continue to push for democratic change.

In an interview with the Reuters news agency this week, he brushed aside concern for his own well-being. "I do not believe that I was sacrificed," he said. "I am not unhappy about what I've said."

He added: "I was only thinking about God, and the nation, and saying out loud what the people have kept in their hearts for so long. I have done my duty, and I don't care about the decision of an unlawful clerical court."

At his trial, Nouri contended, in effect, that the Islamic revolution was hijacked by religious hard-liners who broke the promises of democracy that were made after the overthrow of the shah and instead instituted a system of rigid clerical rule. He called for an end to a system known in Iran as "velayat-e-faqih," literally, the guardianship of the religious jurist, which has been used to justify dictatorial rule by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, and now by Ayatollah Khamenei.

He stunned the court by making what, in the context of the Islamic revolution, was a heretic's case -- that the 1980 Islamic constitution was not intended to place religious leaders above the law. Referring to Ayatollah Khamenei, who appoints members of the court and controls its actions, Nouri said that he was "in essence equal with the general population," and like any other individual, he has "an obligation to obey the law and no powers not specifically granted to him by the constitution."

When the jury reached its verdict this month, it convicted Nouri on 15 counts of apostasy. Among other things, he was found guilty of insulting Islam, of defying its sacred beliefs, of "spreading lies" and of "sowing confusion" among the public, offenses for which he received a three-year jail term.

For a conviction of insulting Ayatollah Khomeini, who has a God-like status among Islamic hard-liners, he was sentenced to two more years.

Attempts in the last two weeks to find common ground between reformist and hard-line clerics had raised hopes that Ayatollah Khamenei might step in and order a lighter sentence, or quash the verdict altogether. But the meetings between the two clerical groups in Tehran and the holy city of Qum appear to have ended without compromise, setting the stage for what many Iranians expect to be an explosive campaign for the parliamentary elections on Feb. 18.


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