Iranian Justice

August 4, 2004

By Nir Boms and Reza Bulorchi

It is not often that legal rulings in other countries make headlines in the United States. But two recent verdicts in Iran have made activists in the U.S. and around the world take notice.

Last week, Hashem Aghajari, who was previously sentenced to death by the Iranian Supreme Court, received a five-year prison sentence following appeals and a rare intervention that came directly from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Comments made by Aghajari during a June 2002 speech were used by Iran’s hardline Judiciary to launch a new front against Iran’s embattled “reformist” faction. During that speech, Aghajari took a jab at the very foundation of Iran’s theocratic regime, stating that Muslims were not “monkeys” who should blindly follow the teachings of senior clerics. 

Aghajari was charged with “insulting the prophets” and with questioning the rule of Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei. While it is astonishing that one of their “own” (Aghajari was a close confidante of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami) landed himself a death sentence simply by uttering a verbal assault on Iran’s theocratic establishment, one can only imagine what happens in closed trials to those outside of the establishment like students and political activists who are struggling to bring about real change. 

Aghajari’s case struck a chord with the Iranian student movement and triggered a grassroots campaign to reverse the court decision. At Tehran University, some 1,200 students denounced “the medieval verdict” and signed a petition for Aghajari’s release. This action woke the Iranian parliament and triggered an open letter issued by 178 deputies calling on the judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi to overturn the verdict and allow Aghajari to go free. Following this sequence of events, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released his own rare order for a re-trial, and Aghajari’s sentence was eventually reduced to five years. 

Aghajari’s was not the only Iranian trial to make headlines this month. Following the Kafkaesque trial of the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi’s murder case, the judge announced last weekend that the only man charged as the murderer was acquitted. Kazemi, a 54-year-old photographer, was arrested in June of last year for taking pictures outside Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. She died from a brain hemorrhage after being struck with a blunt object under interrogation. Her case has brought a much overdue focus on the plight of Iranian political prisoners in the interrogation room. 

Under intense pressure from the West and warnings by the Canadian government, which later recalled its ambassador from Tehran, Khatami released a statement before the trial asking the Judiciary to identify “the real guilty person.”   

As a second round of hearings into the case opened, Canadian, Dutch and British diplomats were bluntly told to stay away, and the trial judge concluded that the junior agent, Mohammad Reza Ahmadi, was innocent of any wrongdoing and that Kazemi’s death was caused as a result of “an accident” that occurred when Kazami fell in her prison cell.  Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, a member of Kazemi’s defense team, has accused Iran’s judiciary of a cover-up. 

These two cases provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the Iranian “justice” system and the struggle between the ruling clerics and the forces of those who call for change and reform. On Monday, dozens of political prisoners in Tehran’s Evin Prison ended a three-week long hunger strike commemorating the July 1999 Iranian student uprising and demanding the release of all political prisoners. Meanwhile, the mullahs’ system of “justice” was on full display in the last few weeks when several people were hanged in public. 

But as the struggle for justice continues to unfold in Iran, it is important to note the growing cracks in the mullarchy’s wall of justice. The world’s increasing focus on Iran, particularly in light of its role in destabilizing Iraq and developing nuclear weapons- not to mention its ties to Al-Qaeda- provides a constant reminder as to the core of the Iranian problem: a fundamentalist regime that will do anything to maintain its grip on power. 

Tens of thousands of reform-minded young Iranians-and not the mullahs- are the ones who are willing to offer a different vision of Iran to the world.  The U.S., Europe and those who are concerned about democracy must continue to pressure Iran and increase their engagement not with the regime of today but with those who are willing to lead the regime of tomorrow. 

Nir Boms is a co-founder of the Pulse of Freedom Initiative and a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Reza Bulorchi is the executive director of the U.S. Alliance for Democratic Iran.

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