New justice chief faces reform battle
By Jonathan Lyons
TEHRAN, Sept 9 (Reuters) - Iran's new justice chief has purged the
judiciary of leading hardliners but legal analysts say he faces an uphill
struggle to fulfil his pledge to pull judges out of politics and refashion
the courts as an independent branch of government.
Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a little known but scholarly cleric,
inherited a judiciary seen by many Iranians as more interested in furthering
the conservatives' political agenda than in dispensing justice.
Charges of corruption are also rife, reducing the court system to an
object of public scorn and ridicule.
At his swearing-in ceremony, Shahroudi promised to take the judiciary
in a new direction.
``The judiciary will not enter any political groupings or factionalism
at all,'' Shahroudi said.
``The main plans of the judiciary include using knowledgeable experts
from the seminaries and universities, using clean and brave judges, choosing
appropriate people for the office of judge...and complete supervision over
all the organs in the judiciary.''
Among his first acts since his appointment last month was the removal
of several key judiciary officials, including hardliners tied to the Haqani
seminary in Qom and the arch-conservative Islamic Coalition Society.
Those ousted included the powerful chief of Tehran's justice department
and the ultra-conservative adviser on social affairs, both of whom enjoyed
wide-ranging authority that reached beyond the confines of the judiciary.
``This was the biggest wave of reform (in the judiciary) in the history
of the Islamic republic,'' said progressive commentator and newspaper editor
``We are frankly convinced that Hashemi Shahroudi is not a supporter
of the reformists, but we are just as sure he is not a supporter of the
right wing. This is all we want.''
KEEN TO MAKE CHANGES
Legal scholars and others familiar with the thinking of the soft-spoken
ayatollah say Shahroudi appears keen to overhaul the judiciary and bring
it in line with the demands of Iran's emerging civil society.
He held a series of meetings with law professors and other experts
before taking office, leaving his interlocutors with the strong impression
that he was well-disposed toward reforms.
``There is potential for this new chief as well-intentioned towards
reforming the judiciary,'' Mohammad Hashemi, a law professor who helped
arrange three consultative sessions with Shahroudi, told Reuters. ``However,
these intentions cannot be expected to yield quick results.''
Another participant, who asked not to be identified, was less sanguine:
``He is a knowledgeable and scholarly man acting in good faith, but the
obstacles he is facing are great. I am not optimistic that he can properly
reform the place.''
Shahroudi's priorities, as expressed at these sessions, include reversal
of a 1994 decision to combine the role of prosecutor and judge, appointment
of more legal specialists to the bench, limits on the extraordinary revolutionary
and clerical courts, and the removal of political influence as much as
possible from the justice system.
Despite his reputation for quiet scholarship, lawyers say Shahroudi
has already shown he is prepared to bend Iran's complex political system
to his will.
Concerned that parliament had approved new codes of legal procedure
that could complicate his future reforms, Shahroudi used his old position
on the Guardian Council -- which must approve all legislation as conforming
to Islam and the constitution -- to stall the measures until he could kill
them off from the vantage point of his new post.
FACING CHALLENGING POLITICAL REALITIES
Such manoeuvres will certainly pale in comparison with what will be
required to overhaul Iran's justice system. Already the new chief has run
into obstacles posed by the political realities on the ground.
At the weekend, a deal that his new legal team had made with the outspoken
newspaper Neshat collapsed when the special Press Court stepped in and
closed the pro-reform daily without a hearing for allegedly questioning
the Islamic law of retribution, summed up in the injunction ``an eye for
Outraged Neshat editors have no doubt that Shahroudi was effectively
undermined by the Islamic Coalition Society, made up of powerful traditionalists
grouped around the Tehran bazaar.
At the group's behest, press judge Saeed Mortazavi ignored the settlement,
which included a published apology, and shut the daily indefinitely, the
Analysts say such setbacks are only to be expected and they raise the
possibility that hardliners may have used the Neshat case as a pretext
to slow any momentum for judicial reform. Even the managers of Neshat,
now closed for a fifth day, are prepared to give the new judiciary boss
the benefit of the doubt.
``We are very optimistic that reforms will be made inside the judiciary,''
the publisher Latif Safari told reporters earlier this week.
``But we are unhappy to say that these acts are taking place so that
Hashemi Shahroudi and his judiciary will be entangled in minor issues and
the public opinion will lose faith in the fact that he wants to reform
the judiciary,'' he said.