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Justice that is politically judged

The Economist
July 08, 2000

Tehran -- BEFORE their trial started, a voluble outside world had declared the 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel to be innocent. So when, on July 1st, the Revolutionary Court sentenced ten of the accused to prison terms of four to 13 years, the charge of a "kangaroo process" was predictable.

But the fact that no defendant received the death sentence, the maximum penalty for espionage, helped to ward off the kind of diplomatic action that some western governments had initially threatened. It helped, too, that in May the state released some of its evidence against the Jews: an espionage network centred in Shiraz which is alleged to have been gathering intelligence for Israel for the past 15 years.

Ignoring protests from Israel, the German government went ahead with its plans to welcome President Muhammad Khatami to Germany on July 10th. This will be Mr Khatami's first visit to Germany since he was head of the Islamic Centre in Hamburg at the time of the 1979 Iranian revolution. On the other hand, the July 4th visit to Iran by Britain's foreign secretary, Robin Cook, was cancelled three days before the verdict was issued. The official reason was that Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, was too busy to entertain Mr Cook. But the cancellation, or postponement, looked to most like a precautionary measure.

If Iran has avoided banishment to pariah status, it owes much to Hossein Ali Amiri, the judiciary chief for Fars province. Mr Amiri was the public face of justice, skilfully briefing reporters and diplomats after each court session.

When the trial began on April 13th, he professed himself baffled by the West's condemnation of Iran's judicial system. But, by the end, that system seems to have come to terms with the limits of world tolerance. The sentences were severe enough to pacify Iranian hardliners but lenient enough to save Iran from diplomatic punishment. After all, the outside world has already managed to put to one side the harsher punishment, and the vile physical maltreatment, that the Iranian authorities hand out to students who simply ask for more democracy.


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