Liberal Iran publisher says court verdict biased
By Mehrdad Balali
TEHRAN, Sept 26 (Reuters) - The publisher of a pro-reform Iranian newspaper,
sentenced to jail on a blasphemy conviction, sharply attacked the verdict
on Sunday as politically motivated and demanded a new, impartial hearing.
``The court was biased and influenced by a certain political faction.
Their approach was more political than legal, and marked by double standards,''
Latif Safari, the director of the banned Neshat daily, told a news conference.
``We want the case to be investigated in a neutral court in the presence
of a jury,'' said Safari, flanked by his lawyer and Neshat's senior editors.
The hardline press tribunal sentenced Safari on Saturday to two-and-a-half
years in prison and banned him from practicing journalism for five years
after he was convicted of ``insulting basic tenets of the Koran and sacred
values'' and fanning a student unrest in the capital in July.
It had already suspended the outspoken newspaper early this month after
it printed articles opposing capital punishment in Islam and urging supreme
leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to stay out of factional politics.
The charges, which also included insults against senior conservative
politicians and police officials, also led to a final ban against Neshat,
the most flamboyant of a number of liberal dailies that have thrived under
President Mohammad Khatami's cultural opening policies.
Several other charges are pending against the daily and are expected
to be investigated in the coming days.
Neshat was popular with the youth and intellectuals and had an estimated
readership of around 200,000 - impressive by Iranian standards.
The ban against Neshat followed months of conservative attacks against
the maverick newspaper and calls for its closure. Neshat had the same editorial
team as two other liberal dailies, which have also been closed for their
ANOTHER BLOW TO REFORMERS
The verdict is seen as a new blow to reformers in their political battle
against hardline conservatives, and comes ahead of the crucial parliamentary
elections in February which Khatami's allies hoped to win with the help
of pro-reform dailies - their main publicity tool.
Khatami's supporters were already reeling from the closure of another
pro-reform newspaper in August for printing what it had said was a confidential
plan by hardliners to try to muzzle the press.
Safari said he had filed a suit against the presiding judge Saeed Mortazavi.
``Mr. Mortazavi is affiliated with a group in the heart of the conservative
camp. He has been working in coordination with this faction in their campaign
against the reformist press,'' he charged.
The judge is unpopular among liberal journalists because of his firm
stand against press violations, especially those stemming from challenges
to religious values.
OBJECTIONS TO ``HEAVY'' SENTENCE
Neshat's lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh described the sentencing as ``heavy,
and lacking any legal or religious basis.''
``They have been investigating my client without the presence of a jury.
The atmosphere of the court was intimidating, and the judge would not let
us talk. We will appeal the sentence,'' he said.
Mashallah Shamsolvaezi, the newspaper's editor-in-chief who has also
been summoned to court, said he took responsibility for the charges and
offered to go to prison instead of Safari.
He urged Iran's new judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi
to fundamentally reform the judicial system, which has been accused by
moderates of being too heavily influenced by the conservative ideology.
``The head of the judiciary should conduct a surgery and rid the system
of hardliners in its folds. I am optimistic about reform in the judiciary.
Mr. Shahroudi has a new thinking,'' he said.
Hashemi-Shahroudi, appointed a month ago, has promised to revamp the
judiciary and has already replaced several hardliners with more low-key
officials as his aides.