Court Silences Iran Reformist With Jail Term
By JOHN F. BURNS
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
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
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
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
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.