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Protester into prisoner

The Economist
November 13, 1999 , U.S. Edition

Tehran - LAST summer, Tehran was rocked by students demonstrating for reform and democracy. The Economist, writing about these events, carried a photograph on its cover of a demonstrator holding up a bloodied T-shirt, which looked (though there is no proof of this) as if it might have belonged to a fellow-protester beaten by the police or vigilantes. Other newspapers, including Iranian ones, used the same dramatic photograph. The publicity did the student, Ahmad Batebi, no good. Last month, he was punished by a revolutionary court which sentenced him to ten years in prison.

The court sentenced six students, whom it accused of being the demonstration's ringleaders, to various prison terms. Manouchehr Mohammadi, charged with inciting the protests and co-operating with western intelligence, received the harshest prison sentence: 13 years. The other four were sent down for two to three years. The fate of another group of four, reported to have been tried in secret and given the death penalty, is still unknown. None of the Islamist vigilantes whose dawn raid on a student dormitory sparked the protest appears so far to have been arrested.

The protesters' crime was to cross a red line: they moved from calling for the reform of the theocratic system to challenging the system itself. Yet this is exactly what Abdollah Nouri, a former interior minister and leading reformist, is doing before a Special Court for Clergy. Mr Nouri, who is charged with undermining the principles of the Islamic revolution in his newspaper Khordad, has turned the court into a forum for the most sensitive of issues. He has challenged the legitimacy of the court, set up by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. He has questioned the absolute authority of Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And he has charged the clerical establishment with being behind last year's murder of secular intellectuals.


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