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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 Saeed Leylaz.

``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.''


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.


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 an eye.''

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 editors said.

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.


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form

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