Iran resumes political trials, but they could backfire

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 8, 2009 

CAIRO, Egypt — Iranian state-run television Saturday announced that a trial had resumed for more than 100 opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but most of the day's programming consisted of parenting shows, nature footage accompanied by French meditations and a documentary on the North Pole.

Even on Reporter's Day, which is supposed to honor journalists who've been imprisoned or killed in the line of duty, Iran is carefully filtering news of the trials of well-known reformist leaders and other activists on charges related to plotting an alleged "soft coup" against the government.

Political analysts say the regime hopes to discredit its opponents and find legal cover for a massive and often violent crackdown that began after Iran's disputed June elections, which Ahmadinejad won.

Critics, however, say that tactic is backfiring, as the lack of transparency, identical charges and carefully scripted statements draw mockery, especially from urban and more educated Iranians who view the trial not as a legitimate legal proceeding but as a brazen warning to opposition sympathizers.

"With everyone from a former vice president to a Newsweek reporter all confessing the same thing, it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out the confessions were written for them," said Shiva Balaghi, a fellow at the Cogut Center at Brown University.

When Iranian media eventually released some trial coverage Saturday, state-run channels and news services again focused on the purported confessions and allegations of a Western-backed opposition plot to overthrow the government. Iranian leaders repeatedly have accused the United States and Europe of helping to fuel the now almost-daily clashes between Iranian security forces and supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader who charges that Ahmadinejad stole the election.

A new batch of defendants appeared in court Saturday, including a young French academic and local Iranian employees of European embassies in Tehran.

France and the European Union are demanding the release of 23-year-old French national Clotilde Reiss, who told the court that she made a mistake by attending a demonstration and said she'd gone out of "personal motives."

Reiss, 24, is accused of acting against Iran's national security by joining protests, gathering information, taking photos and sending them abroad, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. She appeared in court wearing a headscarf and struggled to keep it from sliding as she issued her confession in halting but proficient Farsi, part of which was broadcast on IRINN (Islamic Republic of Iran News Network). Reiss said she'd spoken to Iranian friends about the protests, and then e-mailed information to individuals in France.

IRNA also reported that defendant Hossein Rassam, an Iranian political analyst at the British Embassy, told the court that he was instructed to establish contacts between the British government and opposition leaders, and that Britain had allocated about $500,000 for the project. Rassam is charged with espionage and "acting against national security," according to IRNA.

Rassam said he'd followed the orders of his British employers and attended the protests. He also admitted to meeting with opposition figures in the months before the election. He also confessed to sending information on to London.

Britain's Foreign Office issued a statement in response to what it called "this latest outrage."

"We deplore these trials and the so-called confessions of prisoners who have been denied their basic human rights," the statement read.

The accused have limited, if any, access to attorneys, and only a handful of them reportedly have been allowed brief phone calls to relatives. Iranian and international media receive only government-authorized access to the proceedings. When some of the defendants appeared on television to offer stilted, apparently rehearsed "confessions," Iranians immediately took to the Internet to denounce the admissions as false and coerced.

Following the first trial on Aug. 2, Mousavi issued a statement through his Ghalam News service that "the teeth of the torturers and interrogators had hit the bone of the people," called the allegations against the defendants "baseless" and dismissed the confessions.

"I investigated the claims against them and didn't find them to be true. But what I heard were deep moans that spoke to the painful 50 days they've endured . . . . I saw crushed human beings who would confess to anything," Mousavi wrote in Ghalam. "And, really, what else do they have to say other than the story of their suffering?"

Perhaps the most provocative part of the trial is the prosecution of Mohammad Abtahi, a relatively moderate cleric who was vice president under the reformist government of former President Mohammad Khatami. Abtahi appeared on the first day of the trial, Aug. 1, without his clerical robes and confessed to the court that the opposition spread lies about election fraud and planned even before the vote to seize power through an East European-style velvet" revolution.

Abtahi's wife, Fahimeh Mousavinejad, told Human Rights Watch that she'd learned of her husband's trial from media reports. She said that she'd been able to visit her husband only once, on July 30.

"We sat together in a room where a video camera filmed us, and if we deviated slightly from personal affairs, we were reprimanded," she told Human Rights Watch. Abtahi "was weak and unhealthy, his body was shaking. He had lost more than 36 pounds. I was surprised to see him taken into court in that condition."

Abtahi's confession was deemed especially absurd, given his long record of outspoken opposition to the government.

"It's gone too far. You can't treat a vice president in this manner, stripping him of his cloak. (Abtahi) is a mullah, an ayatollah, and on television we saw him in an ordinary shirt. That's a big disrespect," said Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, a professor at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran and the director of the Eurosevic research foundation in London.

"Perhaps the regime would be wise enough to put some facade of legality on this," Mojtahed-Zadeh said, "because these show trials are not acceptable in any way, by anyone."

Allam reported from Cairo, Egypt. McClatchy special correspondent Parvaz reported from Vancouver, Canada.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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