Iranians lose faith in pivotal murder trial
Geneive Abdo in Tehran
January 6, 2001
The decision by the Iranian judiciary to hold hearings in secret into
the murder of four dissidents by "rogue" intelligence agents
has prompted claims that the proceedings are designed to protect senior
officials and clerics rather than uncover the truth.
Since the court sessions began on December 23, claims that the wrong
defendants are on trial have sparked renewed national tensions.
"The court hearings on the serial murders case are not satisfying
public opinion," said the reformist MP Naser Qavami, head of the parliamentary
committee on judicial affairs. "It seems there is no hope that this
court will administer justice properly."
Eighteen "rogue" agents from the intelligence ministry are
accused of murdering four liberal dissidents in late 1998: nationalist
politicians Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar, and writers Mohammad Mokhtari
and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh.
Reformists allege that the killings were part of a campaign by state-sponsored
death squads to silence dissent.
But conservatives blame what they say are links between the reformist
camp and the killers, with the murders designed to discredit the clerical
establishment and force an overhaul of the security services.
Two pro-reform journalists and a former interior minister say the real
number of those killed was as high as 80, with murders and mysterious disappearances
stretching over a decade. They say that senior clerics conspired with high-ranking
intelligence officials to carry out the murders.
The two journalists and former minister are now in jail. And the judiciary,
dominated by conservative clerics, has vowed to prosecute anyone else making
"unauthorised revelations" in the case.
Whatever the outcome in the trial, it is clear that the proceedings
reflect Iran's troubled political atmosphere more than any quest for the
What began as a promise by President Mohammad Khatami and his allies
to clean up the feared ministry of intelligence has largely evaporated
in the face of entrenched conservative opposition.
Mystery surrounds the selection of the murder victims, who posed no
threat to Iran's Islamic political order. Some reformists have suggested
it was part of a proposed reign of terror. But no coherent pattern has
emerged to date, although scattered press reports indicate that the plotters
worked for months to identify and then eliminate their victims.
In the case of the elderly Farouhar couple, the killers were said to
have posed as a film crew making a documentary about their political activities.
These same reports say intelligence ministry microphones planted inside
their Tehran flat picked up the sound of their brutal murders.
The case began unravelling when the intelligence ministry said renegade
agents were responsible for the murders. The announcement shocked the nation
and many became hopeful that the murderers would be brought to justice.
But since that time, the case has been fraught with drama, suspicion,
and confessions that many believe are fake.
In June 1999 the authorities announced that the ring-leader, a deputy
intelligence minister identified variously as Saeed Emami and Saeed Eslami,
had died in prison after drinking hair remover. Many remain sceptical of
the official ruling of suicide, preferring to see the beginnings of a cover-up.
Two crusading journalists, Akbar Ganji and Emaddedin Baqi, then published
a series of allegations that linked the murders to the hardline clerical
establishment in what they said amounted to a campaign of state-sponsored
Confusion then set in within the top ranks of the government and the
judiciary - special commissions and prosecutors came and went. Charges
of torture against the first investigators left most Iranians with little
hope that the truth will ever be known.
The presiding judge in the case contributed to the prevailing scepticism
by barring the public and the press from court sessions to protect national
"Who can guarantee that an open court would not provide information
to the enemies outside the country?" said Judge Mohammad Reza Aqiqi.
The victims' families are boycotting the proceedings to protest at the
judiciary's decision to restrict the prosecution to only four murders.
At least five defendants have reportedly confessed, and one said he
was aware of the murders but took no active part.
The case, initially regarded as a test of whether President Khatami
could keep his promise to cleanse the intelligence ministry of political
crimes, now reveals his lack of power.
Two years ago Mr Khatami appointed an independent commission to uncover
the truth behind the murders. Its revelations helped to bring the case
to trial, but failed to expose conclusive information about the culprits.