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Iran Dissidents Face New Risk

By Geneive Abdo
International Herald Tribune
December 15, 2000

TEHRAN In a new tactic, Iran's powerful conservatives appear to be turning to Islamic law to intimidate their reformist rivals, citing the death penalty crime of "fighting against God" to stifle political dissent.

A powerful conservative politician who is likely to run for president has said that two prominent journalists could be given the death penalty for their allegations that senior officials in the Islamic political system were behind the serial murders of secular dissidents in the late 1990s.

The remarks by Mohammed Reza Bahonar have sparked fear among reformist journalists awaiting sentences and others yet to stand trial who believe the conservative establishment has adopted a new strategy. Their tactic, they say, is to give journalists who worked for now-banned newspapers an ultimatum: Either sign letters of repentance for their alleged offenses or face the death penalty.

"Some journalists have signed letters of confessions," said one reformist journalist. "But those who refuse fear the worst."

Mr. Bahonar, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of Engineers, said last Thursday that the journalists Akbar Ganji and Emaddedin Baqi, both in jail on multiple charges, could be convicted of the crime of moharebeh, or fighting against God, unless they present solid evidence to support their claims in the serial murders case.

Mr. Bahonar told a gathering of students that any challenge to the Iranian Islamic political system was in effect an assault on the Islamic faith. Such a crime, he said, carries the death penalty.

Mr. Bahonar's statements have sparked a barrage of criticism. "No one should be termed an apostate or thrown in prison because he has spoken or written his mind," said one senior cleric.

Mr. Bahonar softened his stance earlier this week. "I did not say they should be executed," he said, adding that what he meant was that the journalists' claims "must not be dealt with as mere lies."

But reformist journalists say that Mr. Bahonar has revealed a strategy among conservatives that had been concealed for many months. The Iranian judicial system is highly politicized, they say, and conservative politicians often have great influence over court verdicts.

About 30 publications have been closed since April, and many journalists have been charged under a general crime of undermining Islamic principles or political and religious dissent. One progressive cleric, Hassan Yusef Eshkevari, is believed to have been given the death penalty, although the verdict remains a secret. His case is on appeal.

There is precedence in Iran for defendants to be given the death penalty after being pronounced guilty of moharebeh.

In July 1999, Hassan Ruhani, secretary of the supreme national security council, declared that pro democracy demonstrators who rioted for five days in the worst unrest since the aftermath of the Islamic revolution were guilty of moharebeh. Shortly thereafter, several young men who had been arrested in the demonstrations were sentenced to death. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, commuted the sentences to long prison terms.

The recent statements against reformist journalists came during the trial of Mr. Ganji, who is charged in a Revolutionary Court for threatening state security. Mr. Ganji testified last month that two conservative clerics, including the former intelligence minister, were behind the murders of dissidents. Those whom Mr. Ganji named have denied his allegations.


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