Washington Post: Bloody Anniversary

Monday, February 17 1997
Page A24
The Washington Post

FOR THOSE who track censorship, particularly censorship by violence, the last eight years have turned Valentine's Day into an anniversary of a grimmer sort: that of the 1989 Iranian decree, or fatwa, calling for the death of novelist Salman Rushdie. Mr. Rushdie, whose supporters used to mark the anniversary with appeals for government sanctions against Iran, gradually has emerged from isolation as the threat against him has seemed to lessen. This year, the reminder comes from Iran itself -- along with, unfortunately, clear hints of a politics that has wider implications and menaces for writers other than Mr. Rushdie.

One case that has sparked worry among the American and European groups that track abuses against writers is the tale of the Iranian literary editor and critic Faraj Sarkuhi, who was arrested, freed and rearrested earlier this winter in a saga that is still not fully clear. Mr. Sarkuhi, who is now in jail in Tehran -- officially on charges of trying to leave the country illegally -- was "disappeared" in November and then mysteriously "reappeared" after the government declared that it was not holding him and that, in fact, documents showed that he had left the country for Germany, where he has family.

After his reappearance under house arrest, Mr. Sarkuhi smuggled out a long letter describing a bizarre plot in which -- he said -- he had been granted a visa, lured to the airport, made to give up his papers to a stand-in, then secretly held and tortured into taping a long series of faked confessions that would implicate him and other writers in espionage with Germany and France, along with statements that would make the confessions appear to have been taped during a previous arrest in September. Mr. Sarkuhi suggests -- and some dissident groups here think it is plausible -- that the purpose of such a plot would have been to seek leverage over the German government during a potentially highly embarrassing trial of allegedly Iranian government-backed assassins of four people in a Berlin restaurant called Mykonos in 1991.

Whatever the truth of this nasty tale, the Mykonos trial also is offered as possible justification for the confused messages on Mr. Rushdie himself that have been coming from Iran in the week before the anniversary: First came an announcement, from the Tehran foundation that initially offered the bounty on Mr. Rushdie, that the death sentence remains in effect, that the monetary reward is (yet again) being raised and that anyone, not just a Muslim, can collect it. The government then issued its customary disclaimer, saying it had no ability to block a religious decree -- a statement somewhat spoiled by a subsequent one from the Revolutionary Guards that the novelist's death certainly would come soon.

It's far from clear what's happening in Iran or how many different interests are being played out. But the danger to these writers isn't past, nor is the need to keep watch against the viciousness of this brand of censorship by terror.

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