x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Angry response to closed trial

Iran's defiant opposition leaders lash out at a mass "show" trial of prominent reformers hauled before a revolutionary court.

The Iranian opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, right, and his close ally, the former reformist president, Mohammed Khatami.
The Iranian opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, right, and his close ally, the former reformist president, Mohammed Khatami.

Iran's defiant opposition leaders lashed out yesterday at a mass "show" trial of prominent reformers who were hauled before a revolutionary court and accused of working with foreigners to foment a popular uprising against the regime after last month's disputed presidential elections In a hard-hitting statement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the man millions of Iranians believe was the true winner of last month's elections, said: "They expect a court, which itself is fraudulent, to prove that there was no fraud committed in the election." He said "confessions" by some of the 100 detainees - many of them his supporters - at Saturday's closed-door trial were made after they were subjected to "medieval-era torture".

Charges included rioting, attacking military and government buildings, having links with armed opposition groups and plotting to launch a "velvet revolution", Iranian media reported. A further 10 were put on trial yesterday. Iran's charismatic former president, Mohammad Khatami, ridiculed the proceedings as an "unconstitutional" sham. "Such show trials will directly harm the system and further damage public trust," he said, adding that he hoped they would not "lead to ignorance of the real crimes" carried out by the authorities following the June 12 vote. The people instead had expected the government to "confront the problems and tragedies that happened in some detention centres and apparently led to murder".

The strongly worded and apparently synchronised broadsides by Mr Mousavi and Mr Khatami were a defiant challenge to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's bickering hardline camp which had hoped that "confessions" read in court would bolster the morale of his supporters and intimidate the pro-democracy opposition. The statements by the reformist leaders signalled that they and their supporters would not be cowed.

The regime's hardline wing was in an equally defiant mood. The right-wing daily Kayhan newspaper, edited by a close ally of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, exulted in the mass trial. "Evidence of Khatami and Mousavi treason unveiled", it trumpeted in a front-page headline. But it implied both men should be in the dock rather than just "mid-ranking elements" of the opposition. "If the main instigators of unrest who are known are not confronted, they will continue conspiring," Kayhan said.

Iranian officials say at least 20 people were killed in the unrest although human rights groups believe the true figure is far higher. Several protesters have also died in custody, among them Mohsen Ruholamini, the 25-year-old son of a prominent conservative who is an adviser to Mohsen Rezaie, a hardline former chief of the Revolutionary Guards who contested last month's elections. Mr Rezaie added to the regime's woes yesterday by calling on Iran's top judge to punish those "who violated the law by attacking and killing protesters".

Saturday's court proceedings were the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that so many prominent officials had been put on trial. Most have been in jail for weeks without access to lawyers. The scale of the closed-door trial came as a surprise. The authorities had suggested that just 20 "rioters" and "thugs" would be tried on Saturday while detained reformist politicians would face separate proceedings at a later date. The mass trial was seen as an attempt by the government to forestall further embarrassing protests this week that could mar ceremonies for Mr Ahmadinejad's inauguration on Wednesday.

Among those in the packed courtroom during Saturday's three-hour session were several leading reformists, including Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a mid-ranking cleric who had served as one of Mr Khatami's vice presidents. A usually jolly and portly figure, he was Iran's first politician to keep a cyber diary which, laced with intelligence and genial humour, became a huge hit. But in court, Mr Abtahi, wearing a drab prison uniform and without his clerical turban, looked a gaunt and dejected shadow of his former self. His wife said he had lost 18 kilograms during his 43 days in custody.

Many of the detainees were handcuffed or shackled. Only state media were allowed to cover the proceedings. Those found guilty face a maximum jail term of five years, unless they are charged with being a "mohareb", or enemy of God, which can carry the death penalty. "The most important problem with the trial procedure is that it was not held in an open session," Mr Khatami said. "The lawyers and the defendants were not informed of the contents of the cases ahead of the trial," added Mr Khatami, who served two four-year terms as president before being succeeded by Mr Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Now in opposition, Mr Khatami has been more outspoken against the regime's hardliners than he ever was while in office. State television showed two prominent reformists, including Mr Abtahi, saying last month's vote was not rigged. "I say to all my friends who hear us, that the issue of fraud in Iran was a lie and was brought up to create riots so Iran becomes like Afghanistan or Iraq and suffers damage and hardship," Mr Abtahi said. He also purportedly testified that Mr Mousavi, Mr Khatami and another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had taken an "oath" before the elections to support each other, a hardline news agency reported.

The office of Mr Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts that can appoint or dismiss the supreme leader, dismissed the confessions as "sheer lies", adding: "It is not clear how and under what conditions they have been expressed." Mr Abtahi's wife, meanwhile, was quoted by reformist news websites saying her husband had been drugged. "What he said ? was not Mr Abtahi's language ? his tone was as if he was angry ? as if he was forcing himself to say those things. He was not normal," she said.

Mr Mousavi denied that his "green" movement had any connection to outside powers or was trying to undermine the Islamic republic, of which he was a founding father and one of its first prime ministers. "This righteous and spiritual movement does not have the least link to foreigners and is 100 per cent domestic," he said on his website. Even some hardliners criticised the trial and the official portrayal of protesters as bent on overthrowing the system.

Emad Afrough, a former pro-Ahmadinejad parliamentarian, was quoted as saying that people who described the election protests as a velvet revolution should themselves be tried. Meanwhile, the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front said: "The electoral coup d'etat fomented by hardliners has entered a new phase with the ridiculous massive show trial of a group of detainees." The front called for prisoners to be released and given access to lawyers. It said the mass indictment was so full of mistakes that it was clearly hurriedly cobbled together and bore the stylistics hallmarks of Kayhan editors: "The text of the indictment is so close to the literature of the editorials of Kayhan that even a baked chicken would laugh."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae