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Iran murder case pits reformers against judiciary

By Jon Hemming

TEHRAN, Dec 26 (Reuters) - Iran's reformers rejoiced when it looked as though a group of alleged secret police hitmen would be brought to book.

But with the case being held behind closed doors in a military court, few are hopeful that justice will be done.

The second hearing in the trial of the 18 "rogue" agents and their accomplices accused of the serial murders of liberal intellectuals was held on Monday.

But the only information released from the day's proceedings was that Mostafa Kazemi, a former internal security chief at the Intelligence Ministry and an alleged ringleader of the group, had taken the witness stand.

"The court hearings on the serial murders case are not satisfying public opinion," said reformist deputy Naser Qavami, the head of the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs.

"It seems there is no hope that this court will administer justice properly," Hambastegi newspaper quoted him as saying.


Both the public and the press have been shut out of the court "because open public hearings could hurt national security and endanger public order," the presiding judge said in a statement after the case first opened last week.

Victims' families and their lawyers are also boycotting the proceedings in protest at the removal of evidence and the restriction of the prosecution to only four murders.

Reformers say the 1998 killings of nationalists Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar, and writers Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh were part of a wider campaign by state-sponsored death squads to silence opposition.

Parastou Forouhar, whose parents were stabbed to death at home late that year, said what was important was to get to the root of who really ordered the killings.

"The military prosecutors were paying no attention to the admission by some of the suspects that they had received their orders from other persons," she told Doran-e Emrouz daily.

Two reformist journalists were in no doubt who those "other persons" were.

They pointed the finger at two former intelligence chiefs and a powerful judge -- all clerics -- saying the hitmen were mere pawns manipulated by the clerical establishment.

Both reporters are now in jail and the judiciary has threatened to mete out the same punishment for anyone else making "unauthorised" revelations in the case.


The affair does not reflect well on the government of moderate President Mohammad Khatami, whose 1997 election promise was to ensure freedom of speech and the rule of law.

His reform movement is already reeling after more than 30 pro-reform newspapers and journals were banned this year by the conservative judiciary after supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei pronounced them "bases of the enemy."

Some reformers still take some solace from the fact that the "serial murders" case has even come to court.

"Before Khatami's presidency the perpetrators of the serial murders felt enough security and power to do as they wished without being questioned," said MP Ali Shakouri-Rad.

"The perpetrators now find themselves in a position where they have to answer for their deeds."

But now the ring seems to be tightening around Khatami and his circle. The president's brother Mohammad Reza, himself the leader of the biggest reform party, said on Monday he and two close allies were now being prosecuted.

And some MPs have launched a bid to impeach Justice Minister Ismail Shushtari.

"It seems, unfortunately, that the judiciary system and some officials in the judiciary think they can do anything they like and no one dares to question them," the official IRNA news agency quoted MP Akbar Alami as saying on Tuesday.

Since the minister has no power over the judiciary, which is appointed through the office of supreme leader Khamanei, it is likely that, even if successful, the censure will bid will have only symbolic value.


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