(New York) - Iran's decision to stage a "trial" of more than 100 critics of the recent presidential election, complete with broadcast "confessions" of several reformist leaders, underscores the arbitrary nature of their detention, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial began on August 1, 2009, with no notice to the defendants' families or lawyers, and is scheduled to resume on August 6, the day after the inauguration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his second term.
At the August 1 hearing, Abdolreza Mohabbati, a deputy prosecutor for the general and revolutionary courts in Tehran, read a long indictment accusing the defendants of attempting a "velvet coup," but not charging any of them with specific violations of Iranian law. The indictment, the full text of which has not been released by the authorities, named a number of prominent government critics, such as Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who up to now have not been detained.
"The prosecutor's so-called indictment shows that these accusations are political, through-and-through," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Since it's crystal clear that the authorities can't find a recognizable criminal offense to charge these people with, they should release them all immediately and unconditionally."
Most of those on trial were ordinary protesters, but at least seven reformist leaders were among them. Two of them - Seyyed Mohammad Abtahi, a former vice-president; and Mohammad Atrianfar, a journalist and former interior ministry official - recited statements in which they "confessed" that they had decided before the presidential election that they would mount a protest campaign, and that there was no basis for charging that President Ahmadinejad's reelection was fraudulent.
Fahimeh Mousavinejad, Abtahi's wife, told Human Rights Watch that she learned about the trial when state-controlled media reported it. She said that she had 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 said. 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."
In an interview on the state television news program "20:30," broadcast on August 2, a government journalist asked Atrianfar why he had radically changed his views about the election. Atrianfar replied: "It is only God who can change one's heart. When one is put in a situation in which one might not be alive the next day, then one can experience an evolution."
Maziar Bahari, a reporter for Newsweek magazine whose "confession" had been broadcast on June 30, was also among the defendants but did not speak on Saturday.
Other alleged confessions cited in the indictment included those of Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former Interior Ministry deputy; Abdullah Ramazanzadeh, former government spokesman under President Mohammad Khatami; and Behzad Nabavi and Mohsen Safayee Farahani, former members of parliament. The indictment devoted an entire paragraph to Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American scholar who had previously been forced to give a televised confession while he was detained from May to September 2007. He was released on bail in September 2007, and was rearrested on July 9, 2009.
"It is clear that Iran's rulers are using this farce of a trial not just to punish those in custody, but also to intimidate anyone who speaks out against injustice," Stork said. "There is nothing quite like a show trial and televised confessions to demonstrate the authoritarian tendencies of those running the government."
Saeed Mortazavi, the chief Tehran prosecutor, warned on August 2 that anyone criticizing the legitimacy of the trial would also be liable to prosecution.
A lawyer for one of the defendants said that none of the lawyers had seen in advance the indictment read in court by the deputy prosecutor. Only state-controlled media had access to the August 1 hearing. Family members of defendants told Human Rights Watch that they learned of the trial only from state broadcasts. "When I first heard about it on Fars News, I quickly got myself to the courtroom," the wife of one defendant told Human Rights Watch. "I entered the Revolutionary Court building, but all access to the courtroom was blocked."
Wives of three defendants whose names are mentioned in the indictment told Human Rights Watch that security authorities contacted them to say that if they deny what their spouses say in court, their husbands will be subjected to even greater hardships and will be brought before television cameras to refute their wives' statements.
Citing what it said was the confession of an unnamed "spy," the indictment describes the "velvet coup" as comprising six components - the women's rights movement, ethnic groups, human rights groups, the labor movement, nongovernmental organizations, and students. Among the leaders of the women's movement, it names Shadi Sadr, a human rights lawyer who was arrested on July 15 and subsequently released, and Ebadi. The indictment also names Ebadi as a leader of the human rights movement. In this section the indictment lists numerous alleged foreign supporters, including Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the next session of the trial would feature additional staged confessions. On August 3, the pro-government Fars News Agency reported that the confessions of seven leading reformists had been delivered to the state television for broadcast. Zeinab Hajjarian, the daughter of Saeed Hajjarian, a prominent reformist imprisoned since June 15, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had contacted her family to say that her father would be featured at the Thursday session.