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Background and Aftermath of Mass Trials in Iran

August 8, 2009
 Tehran (photo by kamshots, available at flickr)

Saturday, August 1, marked the beginning of mass trials in Iran following the disputed 2009 presidential elections and subsequent civil unrest.  State media reported that over 100 detained protestors were present in court, a much larger number than the original 20 defendants indicated by earlier government statements. Among the accused were several prominent former Iranian senior officials such as former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former Deputy Parliament Speaker Behzad Nabavi, former Deputy Economy Minister Mohsen Safai-Farahani, former government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, former Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Aminzadeh, former Vice Interior Minister Mohammad Atrianfar, and Islamic Iran Participation Front leader Mohsen Mirdamadi. These figures have ties to the leaders of the protest movement, who are some of the most influential powerbrokers in Iran. Atrianfar, for example, was a senior advisor to former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Abtahi was vice president under former President Mohammad Khatami.[1]  If the defendants are convicted, such connections may lead to a wider purge in Iranian politics.  The implication of this mass trial is that future judicial rulings, should the trials continue, may outlaw certain reformist parties or designate their leaders as enemies of the Islamic Republic (despite the fact that some of these individuals were amongst its founders).

Indeed, there has been much speculation about whether top leaders of the reformist movement, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mohammad Khatami, will also stand trial. Statements made by conservative supporters have fueled these speculations. Iranian lawmaker Hamid Resaee, for example, told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that the trials “opened the way to dealing with the leaders of the unrest. There is no longer any reason to tolerate or compromise." More explicitly, Iranian cleric Elias Naderan argued that “Those within the inner circle who managed the unrest must be put on trial. We shouldn't chase after weak, second-class figures with no influence." [2] The semi-official conservative newspaper, Kayhan, has called not only for the arrest of reformist leaders, but also for their execution.[3] Parliamentary member Ali Akbar Oliya, however, has said that the prospect of impending trials is merely a “rumor” propagated by “hardliners.”[4]

IRNA reports indicate that more trials will follow in the coming weeks, although no specific details have been released. [5]  Future judicial proceedings will probably take place without warning in order to foster an atmosphere of uncertainty and apprehension in Iran. The unexpectedly large scale of the first trial illustrates that the Iranian regime is deliberately using such “shock” tactics to further intimidate opposition groups. 

Accusations and Confessions

Other means of intimidation have been the widely broadcasted “confessions” of the defendants. These confessions, which many believe were obtained under duress or torture, attested to the validity of the election results and underlined the importance of submitting to the guidance of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.[6] In one of the most pivotal confessions, Abtahi claimed that “the issue of fraud in Iran was a lie and was brought up to create riots so Iran becomes like Afghanistan and Iraq and suffers damage and hardship…[so that] there would be no name [or] trace of the revolution left.”[7] Atrianfar also avowed that the protests were planned long before the elections in an effort to restructure or dissolve the current regime. Stressing regime solidarity, he urged all Iranians to “submit to the Guardianship of the Jurisprudent and strengthen it…Any radical group or movement under the name of reform…whose behavior was aimed at weakening the regime must declare an end to such behavior and apologize.”[8] One Iranian journalist, arrested for his coverage of the elections in Newsweek, asked for forgiveness from the supreme leader and the Iranian people. [9]

Whether such forgiveness will be granted remains to be seen. The defendants are accused of serious crimes such as attacking military and government buildings, establishing ties with “terrorist” opposition groups (mainly the Iraq-based group Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization), and conspiring against the ruling system by promoting a “velvet revolution” in Iran.[10] The minimum punishment for these acts is five years in prison. If the defendants are deemed a threat to national security, however, the prosecutor has the authority to sentence them to death. Although officially unrelated to the trials, the number of executions in Iran since the June 12 elections has dramatically increased. Just over 50 days since then, the Iranian regime has reportedly executed 115 people (an average of over two people per day) for various crimes such as drug trafficking, murder, and the support of “terrorist” groups.  Iran’s frequent use of the death penalty is disturbing considering the large number of defendants awaiting trial and judiciary sentences.[11]

Reformist Reactions

The leaders of the opposition movement have denounced the trials, claiming that the government forced the defendants to testify falsely. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading reformist challenger in the elections, claimed that the hardliners “expect to prove that the election was honest by putting on a show trial in which everything is fake.” He argued that the illegitimacy of the judiciary proceedings significantly weakened the position of the Iranian regime vis-à-vis its opponents. 

The torturer’s and interrogators’ teeth have reached people’s bones, to the extent that their victims are now those who have greatly served the country and the political system…after destroying the republican side of the political system [with the rigged election], [they are] targeting the Islamic side and its credibility with dishonorable acts…The only definitive judgment of the human conscience after watching the show trials is a de-legitimization [of the system] and the lack of moral credibility of the perpetrators [of the show trials]. [12] 

Khatami echoed this sentiment, stating that the “most significant effects of these show trials will be the harm [they do] to the political system and the [destruction of the] public’s trust [in the system].” He condemned the trials as “illegitimate” and “contrary to the constitution and the law.” [13] Even conservative presidential challenger Mohsen Reza’i, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, criticized the trials for being one-sided. He stated that those who violently suppressed the protests (most of whom were under the command of the current IRGC Commander) should also be tried, an interesting comment given his ties to those leading the post-election crackdown.[14] 

Motivations and Implications 

Despite such criticism, the authorities have strong incentives to continue the show trials. The regime, given the numerous post-election challenges, likely feels the need to reassure its conservative power base that the elections were, in fact, legitimate.  Hardliners may also be using the trials to build a foundation for future rulings banning major reformist parties from the political arena.  The regime seems to believe that these actions, along with the threat of continuing arrests and mass trials, will strengthen its position vis-à-vis the opposition movement. Beyond these domestic rationales, the trials seem to be intended to signal to the international community that the regime is resolutely prepared to do whatever necessary to defend the current political structure.  

The Iranian regime, however, has miscalculated the effect of the trials on both the domestic and international levels. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has condemned the proceedings as a “sign of weakness,” demonstrating that the “Iranian leadership is afraid of their own people, and afraid of the truth and the facts coming out.” [15] Officially, the Obama administration remains committed to diplomatic engagement with Iran. In the aftermath of the trials, however, there is a noticeable, albeit small, shift in the discourse on Iran towards more serious consideration of military options.[16] In Tehran, the protests continued on Thursday night, as hundreds of Iranians gathered in Vanak square to voice the now familiar cry of “marg bar dictator!” (death to the dictator).[17]




[1]  Ali Akbar Dareini, “Iran Begins Trials of postelection ‘rioters,’” The Associated Press, August 1, 2009. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jGSJEAPs_r2T2wxsL5G3t4z-jajQD99Q2OVG0. And Aresu Eqbali and Farhad Pouladi, “Top Iran Reformer Tells Trial Vote was ‘Clean,” Times of the Internet, August 1, 2009. Available: http://www.timesoftheinternet.com/97260.html.
 
[2] Time Staff, “Iran’s Show Trials: The Hard-Liners Build Their Case,” Time, August 3, 2009. Available: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1914294,00.html. “’Rumors’ of Mousavi, Khatami Trial in Iran,” Press TV, August 5, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=102539&sectionid=351020101.
 
[3] Robert Dreyfuss, “The Nation: Show Trials in Tehran,” National Public Radio (NPR), August 4, 2009. Available: http://www.npr/org/template/story/story.php?storyID=111528838.
 
[4] “’Rumors’ of Mousavi, Khatami Trial in Iran,” Press TV, August 5, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=102539&sectionid=351020101.
 
[5] The IRNA reported that a second session of trials would begin on Thursday, August 6, however, no trials were held. Nasser Karimi, “Conservative Seeks Trials for Iran Bloodshed,” The Associated Press. August 2, 2009. Available: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=8232139.
 
[6] “Torture Claim against Iran Trial,” BBC News, August 2, 2009. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8180180.stm. And “Over 100 Iranians Face Grossly Unfair Trials,” Amnesty International, August 4, 2009. Available: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/over-100-iranians-face-grossly-unfair-trials-20090804.
 
[7] Aresu Eqbali and Farhad Pouladi.
 
[8] Ibid.
 
[9] Iranian news correspondent Maziar Bahari stated: “On behalf of myself and my press colleagues, I apologize to Iran’s great nation and supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution for doing harm to the country.” Thomas Erdbrink, “100 Iranians Tried for Disputing Election: Prosecutor says U.S. Abetted Them,” August 2, 2009. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2009/08/01/ST2009080102629.html.
[10] Ali Akbar Dareini.
 
[11] “Iran Executions Increase since Election,” World Watch, August 7, 2009, Available: http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2009/08/07/world/worldwatch/entry5222976.shtml. And “Iran: 115 Executions since Elections,” Amnesty International, August 7, 2009, Available: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=18367.
 
[12] Muhammad Sahimi, “Mousavi Statement on Trials,” Tehran Bureau, August 2, 2009. Available: http://tehranbureau.com/mousavi-torture-reached-bone/.
 
[13] Nasser Karimi.
 
[14] Ibid.
 
[15]Clinton Says Trial Shows Iran ‘Is Afraid of its Own People,’” CNN News, August 6, 2009. Available: http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/08/06/clinton.iran.trials/.
 
[16] Chuck Wald, “There is a Military Option on Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2009. Available: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204908604574332753028699432.html. And “U.S. Strike on Iran ‘Feasible and Credible:’ Retired General,” Agence France Presse, August 7, 2009. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5i-SRf9SYvezL4RJ4szz5ftVWLzyw.
 
[17] Robert Mackey, “Protestors Press on in Iran,” The New York Times, August 7, 2009. Available: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/07/protesters-press-on-in-iran/?hp.