x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ayatollah Khamenei faces direct challenge

Reformist former parliamentarians issue an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's post-election crisis escalated dramatically yesterday when reformist former parliamentarians issued an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and declared that a detention centre which held protestors was worse than the notorious US prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The large group of ex-legislators appealed to the Assembly of Experts, Iran's top clerical body, to investigate the supreme leader's qualification to rule after he anointed President Mahmoud Ahmadinjead's "stolen" re-election in June a "divine victory".

The 86-member clerical panel theoretically has the power to dismiss a supreme leader although it has never done so in the Islamic Republic's 30-year history. While the call is likely to be ignored, the former parliamentarians crossed a red line in targeting Ayatollah Khomeini, who holds ultimate religious and political power. Hardliners were in equally combatant mood, however. A senior fundamentalist cleric urged Tehran's judiciary to resist pressure from "bullying" European nations to free western-linked detainees rounded up in the tumultuous wake of June's election.

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Friday prayers in Tehran that "some embassies in Iran, particularly the British Embassy, were involved in some plots and some of their employees took part in post-election protests". A French woman, together with two local employees of the British and French embassies, have appeared at mass trials of protesters, reformist politicians, journalists and human rights activists. The Iranian opposition, western governments and human rights groups have condemned the proceedings at Iran's Revolutionary Court as "show" trials. The ex-parliamentarians went even further, branding it a "Stalinesque court".

Ayatollah Khamenei, meanwhile, called for the prosecution of Mehdi Karrubi, a defeated reformist presidential candidate, for libelling the system by claiming that some detainees were raped by their jailers. Mr Karrubi's explosive accusations infuriated Iranian hardliners who branded them as "sheer lies". Ayatollah Khatami said they had "made America, Israel and other enemies happy". Mr Karrubi last Sunday alleged that several young protesters - both male and female - were "savagely raped" in custody. Brushing aside hardline threats, he made fresh accusations yesterday, saying that some protesters were tortured to death at Kahrizak, an infamous detention centre south of Tehran.

"I'll defend the rights of the people as long as I'm alive and you can't stop my tongue, hand and pen," Mr Karrubi said. "Young people were beaten severely ? to death because they chanted slogans ? It is deplorable that people detained over election protests are tortured. Do such treatments conform with Islam, which is a religion of mercy?" He also elaborated on his sensational jailhouse rape allegations, painting scenes remarkably reminiscent of the US's Abu Ghraib scandal, although he did not make the comparison. "Some of the detainees said they were forced to take off their clothes. Then they were made to go on their hands and knees and were ridden" by prison guards, Mr Karrubi said. "Or the prison authorities put them on top of each other while they were naked."

The group of former reformist politicians, however, drew a direct parallel to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and insisted Ayatollah Khamenei was responsible for the judicial system and security forces which carried out the post-election crackdown. Claims that political prisoners have been sexually abused have been made before, but only by private citizens and human rights activists. Mr Karrubi's allegations are far more damaging because of who he is. The septuagenarian cleric has impeccable revolutionary credentials, is a former speaker of parliament and was a senior regime insider until June's election forced him to become a leader of the loyal opposition.

While vehemently denying Mr Karrubi's sexual abuse allegations, the authorities have acknowledged that some protesters were tortured at Kahrizak. The abuse there was so brutal that Ayatollah Khamenei recently ordered Kahrizak's closure and the jailing of its director, following the revelation that the son of a senior aide to a leading conservative politician was among at least three protesters who had died there.

Mr Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, received glowing support from an expected quarter yesterday. An influential cleric regarded as his spiritual mentor claimed that opposing the president was like challenging God's will. Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi argued inventively that because the supreme leader had endorsed Mr Ahmadinejad's "divine" electoral victory, "obeying the president is like obeying God".

Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi has often spoken against democracy, insisting that the supreme leader's authority comes from God, not the people. Nevertheless, the regime made clear that it values elections - even allegedly fraudulent ones - as an endorsement of popular legitimacy for the Islamic system. The authorities issued a new postage stamp to commemorate the globally "unparalleled" 85 per cent turn-out for the June 12 elections.

Mohammad Soleimani, the ministry of communications and information technology, claimed: "The stamp will be the symbol of the Iranian nation's unity and their massive turnout in the president election." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae