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    Iran's leader stamps on freedom
    Ayatollah tells MPs to spike their reformist press bill

By Geneive Abdo, in Tehran
The Guardian
August 7, 2000

The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the reformist parliament yesterday to abandon its promise to expand freedom of speech and revive the banned progressive press. It was seen as a step toward re-asserting clerical rule over participatory democracy.

Ayatollah Khamenei's action runs counter to the hopes of millions whose votes in February's general election sent to parliament a majority of reformists who had run on platforms including a free press.

Using his powers to intervene in the legislative process, the ayatollah issued a letter to the 290 MPs concerning a new bill meant to amend the restrictive press law. When the letter was read aloud in the chamber, scuffles broke out on the floor.

"If the enemies infiltrate the press, this will be a big danger to the country's security and the people's religious beliefs," he wrote.

"I do not deem it right to keep silent . . . The bill is not legitimate and not in the interest of the system and the revolution."

Iranians have been waiting to see when and how the conservative establishment would try to use its overwhelming power to challenge republican rule.

Under the constitution, the supreme leader, who is appointed by a body of conservative clerics, has the final say in all matters of state. But it came as a surprise that Ayatollah Khamenei intervened in such a blatant and public way.

Some MPs voiced outrage and threatened to resign. Others said they planned to write to Ayatollah Khamenei in protest, and reformist sources said they were afraid that one of their colleagues could face criminal charges for protesting against the leader's action too vociferously.

The Iranian press has given the reform movement a powerful voice; the ayatollah used a speech in April to label some newspapers, "bases of the enemy".

For this reason, conservatives in the judiciary shut down these publications, beginning in April, and jailed at least half a dozen editors and commentators. Some were imprisoned for up to five years; others were released on bail but banned from involvement in writing or publishing.

Yesterday the reformist MPs were poised to make such restrictive measures more difficult by passing a new press law which would require legal action to be taken against newspaper publishers, rather than against individual writers, thus lifting the threat of jail sentences from journalists.

The law would have changed the composition of a press supervisory board, which licenses publications, to include more reformers.

Reformist MPs knew that the extent of their power remained uncertain. Even if they had rallied a majority to vote for the bill, it could still have been vetoed by the Guardian Council, a body of conservative clerics and jurists charged with deciding if legislation conforms to Islamic law.

It often uses this power to veto legislation it disagrees with for political reasons.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, deputy speaker of parliament and the head of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the reformers' biggest faction, which functions like a political party, acknowledged the movement's limitations last week.

Mr Khatami, the brother of President Mohammad Khatami, said the new MPs should lower their expectations for change.

The parliamentary speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, a senior cleric approved by Ayatollah Khomenei to lead parliament against the wishes of the reformers, reminded MPs of the limitations of republican rule.

"Our constitution has the elements of the absolute rule of the supreme clerical leader and you all know this and approve of this," he said. "We are all duty-bound to abide by it."

To counter the gains that reformers have made through the ballot box in municipal and parliamentary elections, conservatives have asserted their power in the judiciary and law enforcement - the institutions they dominate.

Many reformers now say publicly that it will take many years to achieve political pluralism. Mohsen Kadivar, a prominent cleric who was released from prison after being given an 18-month sentence, said it was unrealistic to expect freedom of speech in Iran to happen quickly.

Mr Kadivar was jailed for a series of articles he wrote accusing the clerical establishment of behaving like the shah's regime.

"We are living in a third world country. There is a 2,500-year history of despotism," he said. "It is natural that there should be resistance in the face of freedom. The judiciary respects neither the law, nor religious standards, nor public opinion.

"But the fact that they arrest their opponents, rather than kill them like they did before, is progress."


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