Iran launches mass trial of opposition

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Editor’s note: GlobalPost correspondent Iason Athanasiadis reported on the demonstrations in Iran. He was arrested in Tehran and held in jail for three weeks. He is now reporting on Iran from Turkey.

ISTANBUL — A mass trial of about 100 Iranians accused by the government with fomenting a revolution opened in Tehran Saturday and was dismissed as a "politically motivated and illegal indictment" by the pro-reform Islamic Participation Party.

The trial opened after a week in which anti-government protests resumed after a lull in the demonstrations which challenged the June 12 elections, despite harsh crackdowns by authorities.

On Monday Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was endorsed for a second term by the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a ceremony that sought to portray unity among the country’s leadership but was snubbed by prominent critics of the election results, according to Associated Press.

Only state-owned media covered the proceedings of the first sitting of the previously unannounced trial held at a Revolutionary Court in Tehran. Reformist journalists were excluded. The hardline semiofficial Fars News Agency provided live blogging from the proceedings.

Defendants were accused of having “participated in riots, acting against national security, disturbing public order, vandalising public and government property, having ties with counter-revolutionary groups and planning to launch a velvet revolution,” according to the indictment.

A number of print and photo journalists were accused of sending information and pictures of the riots out of the country. Iranian-Canadian Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari is one  of the accused. Several younger defendants were charged with producing hand-grenades, Molotov cocktails and targeting regime security forces during the street riots that followed the contested June 12 presidential elections.

Reporters Without Borders denounced the proceedings as “a travesty of a trial.”

The maximum sentence is ten years, except if the accused are judged to have been mohareb (an Islamic term that means battling Allah) in which case the punishment is death.

The accused filing into the courtroom was a  parade of reformist personalities in prison garb, including former ministers, a former vice president and the editor of an influential daily. Some were in shackles. They sat among Islamic Republic officials on red conference chairs flanked by television cameras.

The proceedings of the first day focused on several confessions from prominent members of the accused. Court officials read out a confession from Ali Abtahi, former vice president in the reformist administration of Mohammad Khatami, who appeared looking gaunt and dressed in a prison uniform instead of his usual clerical garb and turban.

The state prosecution produced a statement from Abtahi in which he seemingingly supported the state’s accusations:  “I say to all my friends and all 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 and Iraq and suffers damage and hardship,” said Abtahi, according to a Fars transcript. Abtahi added that he believed Khatami’s backing of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was “traitorous.”

Later, state television showed Abtahi addressing a press conference through a deck of microphones in a wood-panelled reception room under twin portraits of founder of the Islamic Republic Ruhollah Khomeini and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Mohammad Atrianfar, a journalist and adviser to former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani whose newspaper was shut down by the Ahmadinejad government, publicly pledged his allegiance to the Islamic Republic.

Kian Tajbakhsh, an American-Iranian scholar who was arrested and released in 2007, blamed the United States from the dock, alleging that “the main instigators of the riots” were “the government, semi-government and intelligence services of the United States,” according to state news agency IRNA.

“Evidence of Khatami’s and Mousavi’s betrayal revealed,” was the front page headline of Sunday’s conservative newspaper, Keyhan.

Former president Mohammad Khatami Sunday criticized the trial as a sham that would further erode confidence in the ruling Islamic establishment, according to Associated Press. 

Experts dismissed the confessions. “These current statements have been forced under duress from someone being held in an undisclosed location without access to a lawyer, family or friends, in violation of the human rights treaties to which Iran is supposedly a signatory,” said Pamela Kilpadi, a New York-based researcher who is working on a book with Tajbakhsh. “This is a disgrace to humanity.”

Public reaction in Tehran was muted on Saturday with no public protests and normal traffic on the streets during what was a normal working day. Saeed, a caller into a BBC Persian program from Iran predicted that the statements by the reformists on trial in which they said the elections were not rigged would be enough to cease all further protests.

However, others said the trials would not strengthen the Ahmadinejad government.

“This is not working in the regime’s favour,” said an Iranian reformist and political exile who fled Iran for Turkey. “It is only turning those in the dock into heroes in the eyes of the public.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on the plight of journalists in Iran:

Jailing the messengers

Left in limbo in Iran

More GlobalPost dispatches by Iason Athanasiadis:

Tehran’s wild nights of protest

Snapshots from Tehran’s Revolution Square

Iran’s elections: The view from the highway

More GlobalPost dispatches on the Iranian protests:

Essay: The flight from Tehran

Protester vs. protester in Iran

Revolution, Tiananmen, or something else?

Young, Iranian and ready for change

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