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Closed Trial in Iran Raises Skepticism

By Geneive Abdo
International Herald Tribune
January 3, 2000

TEHRAN A sensational trial the government vows will get to the bottom of state-sponsored death squads is prompting skepticism among many who say the closed hearings will protect clerics, intelligence agents and high-ranking officials behind the killings.

Since the sessions began more than a week ago, charges from pro-reform politicians that the wrong defendants are on trial have renewed national tensions that the state intended to quell by bringing the case to court.

"The court hearings on the serial murders case are not satisfying public opinion," said Naser Qavami, head of the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs. "It seems there is no hope that this court will administer justice properly."

Eighteen so-called rogue agents from the Intelligence Ministry are on trial on charges of murdering four liberal dissidents in late 1998: the nationalist politicians Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar and the writers Mohammed Mokhtari and Mohammed Jafar Puyandeh.

[Four defendants confessed in court Tuesday to involvement in the 1998 assassinations, according to state radio, Agence France-Presse reported.

[Three admitted to personally carrying out some of the murders, and a fourth said he had supervised the killing of Mr. and Mrs. Foruhar, it said.]

Another defendant, Mostafa Kazemi, a former Intelligence Ministry internal security chief, confessed last weekend that he had been behind the murders, but no details have been made public.

Two pro-reform journalists and a former interior minister say the real number of those killed was much higher, with murders and mysterious disappearances stretching over a decade. They say that senior clerics conspired with high-ranking intelligence officials to carry out the killings. The two journalists and former minister were punished for their statements and are now in jail. The judiciary, dominated by conservative clerics, has vowed to prosecute anyone else making "unauthorized revelations" in the case.

Conservatives cite 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.

The case began unraveling in January 1998, when in an unprecedented admission the Intelligence Ministry said that renegade agents had been responsible for the murders. But the first blow to public confidence came in June 1999 when the authorities announced that the ringleader, a deputy intelligence minister, had died in prison after drinking poisonous hair-remover. Many remain skeptical of the official ruling of suicide.

Two journalists, Akbar Ganji and Emaddedin Baqi, then published a series of allegations that linked the so-called chain murders to the hard-line clerical establishment in what they said amounted to a campaign of state-sponsored terror.

Confusion set in within the top ranks of the government, and different judiciary special commissions and prosecutors came and went.

The presiding judge in the current trial contributed to the skepticism by barring the public and the news media from sessions to protect national security interests. "Who can guarantee that an open court would not provide information to the enemies outside the country?" Judge Mohammed Reza Aqiqi said.

The case, which initially was regarded as a test of President Mohammed Khatami's promise to cleanse the ministry of political crimes, is seen as a revelation of his lack of power.

"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," said Akbar Alami, a member of Parliament.


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