Iran Trials Not Having Desired Effect

The trial is now under way in Iran of more than 100 opposition figures who challenged the results of the country's presidential election. But the trials have been carried out in such a clumsy fashion, that many in Iran say it could be doing more harm than good to the government.

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Show trial is the phrase most often used by critics to describe what's been going on since early August in Tehran. More than 100 opposition figures have been accused of working with foreign powers to undermine Iran. Many of them have been forced to confess on television to alleged crimes and connections with the U.S., Britain and Israel. But this trial may not be having the desired effect, as NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: There is no evidence, no direct and cross examination, no judge to sort out disagreements. More than anything, it resembles the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s in Moscow, which resulted in a large number of executions.

But some analysts see this as more theater than trial. The audience being those inside and outside Iran who support the government and President Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election, says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Iran Specialist, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Basically to reassure them that what transpired over the last two months in Iran in terms of this popular uprising was orchestrated by imperial powers intent on fomenting unrest in Iran, and basically to discredit any type of opposition to the government, as orchestrated by imperial powers.

SHUSTER: But the trial is not having its intended effect, says Ervand Abrahamian, a professor of history at the City University of New York. Abrahamian has written a book, "Tortured Confessions," about show trials and forced confessions in the Islamic republic.

Professor ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN (History Department, City University of New York): People ridicule, in fact, the confessions. And they feel sorry for the people making the confessions and blame the government for using force to get people to go in front of the cameras.

SHUSTER: Early in the process, government prosecutors read from lengthy indictments intended to link the protesters to activities fomented allegedly by the CIA. One of those charges involved the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a well-known Iranian American scholar, Abbas Milani. But, says Milani, the prosecution couldn't spell Hoover's name correctly.

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director, Iranian Studies Program, Stanford University): They don't have the wisdom to even look up the name of the institution that in their mind is so colossally responsible for this revolution. And all they had to do is look up the Internet and Hoover would have remained Hoover, rather than becoming Hoofer.

SHUSTER: It has even become a crime to criticize the trial. The laws used to prosecute the opposition include: spreading corruption on earth and fighting the security of the Islamic republic, says Milani.

Professor MILANI: These are the type of totalitarian definitions of crime that are intended to be ambiguous, intended to be implemented in a random manner for absolute maximum usefulness.

SHUSTER: Yet they have not proved useful, and even some at the highest levels of government seemed to have realized it. Just this week, the government appears to have conceded that at least one young man was beaten to death in prison after he was detained during this summer's protests.

And a few days ago, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated he had seen no evidence that leaders of the opposition conspired with foreign powers. That has effectively nullified the confessions the accused have read, says Ervand Abrahamian.

Professor ABRAHAMIAN: Once that link is not there, then the recantations really have no meaning because what the point of the recantations was to say that, yes, they were tools of the foreign powers who were trying to overthrow the regime.

SHUSTER: This summer's political turmoil in Iran has opened up sharp divisions in Iranian society, and those political fissures have affected even those who make up Iran's ruling elite. The trial of the opposition has aggravated those divisions, says, Abrahamian.

Prof. ABRAHAMIAN: Some of the people in the Ministry of Information or Intelligence actually were against the show trials because I think they realize that this creates a backlash.

SHUSTER: But backlash or not, this trial continues and a few senior political and religious leaders have hinted some of the defendants could face the death penalty.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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'Show' Trials Not Playing Well With Iranian Public?

Iranian dissident Saeed Hajjarian i i

Iranian reformist Saeed Hajjarian (left), on trial Aug. 25 for allegedly seeking to undermine the government, is one of more than 100 dissident leaders who are being tried after disputing the outcome of Iran's presidential election. Hassan Ghaedi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hassan Ghaedi/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian dissident Saeed Hajjarian

Iranian reformist Saeed Hajjarian (left), on trial Aug. 25 for allegedly seeking to undermine the government, is one of more than 100 dissident leaders who are being tried after disputing the outcome of Iran's presidential election.

Hassan Ghaedi/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's hard-line government continues to parade groups of opposition figures through a Tehran courtroom as part of a nationally televised trial in which they are accused of trying to foment a revolution against the Islamic republic with the help of the U.S. and other foreign powers.

The government is prosecuting members of the opposition movement who maintained that Iran's June 12 election was stolen by loyalists of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Early in the process, government prosecutors read from lengthy indictments intended to link the protesters to activities fomented allegedly by the CIA. Many of the accused have offered public confessions in which they admitted to "mistakes," ranging from teaching modern political concepts to meeting with foreign groups, such as the democracy-encouraging Soros Foundation.

Iranian opposition groups have compared the sessions to the show trials of the former Soviet Union, in which officials who had fallen from favor with the Communist Party would publicly confess their "crimes" before being executed or sent to prison.

Analysts say the effort to undermine the reform movement is not playing well with much of the Iranian public.

"People ridicule, in fact, the confessions, and they feel sorry for the people making the confessions and blame the government for using force to get people to go in front of the cameras," Ervand Abrahamian, a professor of history at City University of New York, told NPR's Mike Shuster.

"What's happening is that [the government] is trying to discredit the reformist opposition and cow the rest of the population," says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "My sense, from what I hear, is that people are having the exact opposite reaction," he adds.

Milani and the Hoover Institution have both been named by prosecutors at the trial as part of a conspiracy to promote the overthrow of Iran's government.

Top Reformers Not Targeted

So far the defendants have included key figures in the reform movement, but not the top leaders, presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the government is going after people who were contributing to the reform movement or were close to the top leadership.

"They [the government] felt that if they put the leaders of the opposition themselves in prison, it could cause too much of a popular uproar, so they went after the emissaries of these people," Sadjadpour says.

But one analyst, who requested not to be identified because he was afraid of government retaliation against friends and family members in Iran, says the accusations and confessions are laying the groundwork for arresting "the real or symbolic leaders of the movement — Mousavi, Khatami, and possibly even Rafsanjani."

Photos from the trial in early August showed the front rows of the courtroom filled with defendants clad in pajama-like prison uniforms and plastic sandals, listening as the accusations were read.

Forced Confession Meant As Farce?

Prominent among them was Saeed Hajjarian, a longtime reformist who began his career as one of the student radicals who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Hajjarian, now 55, is partially paralyzed by a bullet from an assassination attempt in 2000 after he had pressed for expanding the powers of then-president Khatami.

Because Hajjarian's speech is still slurred by paralysis, his confession was read by a fellow prisoner. It was a sweeping statement that utterly renounced his reformist ideas, saying that the supreme leader represents the rule of God on Earth and begging forgiveness for what he called "grave mistakes."

Those mistakes, he said, include teaching social sciences when he was a lecturer at Tehran University. "My sense of Hajjarian's mea culpa is that it was a very cleverly written piece that made fun of the regime. He's saying 'I'm not the guilty one; the social sciences are.' That tells you the level of seriousness of the discussion."

"The confessions are so hyperbolic, with individuals apologizing for their entire pasts, for their entire careers, that it's meant as a signal that this is a farce," Sadjadpour says. He says the confessions aren't being taken seriously by anyone but a relatively small group of hard-line supporters of Ahmadinejad.

Blaming Foreign Powers For Inciting The Opposition

One theme that runs through many of the confessions is that the defendants say they were involved with foreign entities, such as the Soros Foundation, a civil-society group run by billionaire financier George Soros.

Sadjadpour says that is an effort to suggest that the opposition is supported and directed by foreign powers. He says the government wants to show "that the 3 million people the whole world saw taking to the streets were not really acting at their own behest. They were acting at the behest of foreign powers, and this is why you see these constant allegations that the U.S. and European countries are trying to foment a velvet revolution."

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, apparently modified that stance a few days ago when he said he had seen no evidence that leaders of the opposition actually conspired with foreign powers.

Abrahamian told NPR's Shuster that Khamenei's comment effectively nullified the statements that many of the accused have read, in which they said they were "tools of the foreign powers that were trying to overthrow the regime."

Government prosecutors have called for severe punishment for the individual defendants, along with the elimination of two reformist political parties.

Sadjadpour says he expects that the initial sentences will be harsh. "Historically the Islamic republic is prone to announcing extremely heavy-handed punishments initially and then backing down from them. I would be very surprised if any of these high-profile individuals is sentenced to execution. I would even be very surprised if any of them spends a very long period of time in prison," he says.

Iran's Police Admit Detainees Were Tortured

That may not be the case for many nonprominent people who were arrested for demonstrating against the election results.

The Web site of one of the defeated opposition presidential candidates, Mehdi Karoubi, alleged that some young detainees, male and female, had been beaten and raped in custody.

Iran's top police official acknowledged in August that some protesters had been tortured in jail, and said the head of the detention center and some policemen had been arrested for mistreating prisoners.

The official, Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, denied that any of the detainees had died under torture, saying that three deaths that were cited by human rights groups were the result of an unspecified "viral illness."

The government has since conceded that at least one young man was apparently beaten to death in prison after his arrest during the protests.

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