Human Rights Watch is writing this open letter to express its condemnation of the five-year prison term handed down to Hojatoleslam Abdollah Nouri, publisher of Khordad newspaper, by a Special Court for the Clergy. Hojatoleslam Nouri, a former minister of interior and a close associate of President Khatami, was convicted on charges that his newspaper published articles that "defamed the system" and spread lies and propaganda against the state.

We believe that Hojatoleslam Nouri's prosecution and conviction was aimed at punishing him for exercising his fundamental right to freedom of expression and intended to exclude him from running as a candidate in the February 2000 parliamentary elections . As you will be aware, some observers have predicted he would not only win the elections if eligible to stand but could also become the next Speaker of Parliament. In February this year he won the highest number of votes in the elections for local municipalities. Human Rights Watch calls for his immediate and unconditional release and for assurances that his unwarranted conviction will not be used to exclude him from the election process in February 2000.

Nouri's prosecution is based on Iranian legislation that is open to interpretation allowing sweeping and arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression and reflects the urgent need to institute legal and administrative safeguards to protect free speech and press freedom. Of particular concern are article 24 of the Iranian constitution, which allows broadly conceived limits on expression by declaring that restrictions are appropriate when the material in question "is detrimental to the fundamentals of Islam" and the Press Law of 1985, which contains similar broadly-worded language giving the government licence to clamp down on press freedom more or less at will.

The sweeping restrictions imposed through such laws are in clear violation of Article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, which states:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice...

We take this opportunity to reiterate the recommendations we made in our report on press freedom in Iran, As Fragile as a Crystal Glass, released in October this year in which we urged the government of Iran to:

-Amend the constitution in order to revise the sweeping language of article 24, so that restrictions on expression are in accord with the norms of free expression set out in article 19 of the ICCPR and other international instruments to which Iran is a party.

-Replace the Press Law of 1985 with legislation that maximizes the right to freedom of expression and ensure that any restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression are specific and narrowly defined so as not to place in jeopardy the right to free expression itself.

Human Rights Watch is further concerned about the fairness of Hojatolesalm Nouri's trial. We have in the past condemned trials before the Special Court of the Clergy, an extra-constitutional judicial body whose procedures are not public and fall far short of international standards for fair trial. While the trial of Hojatolesalm Nouri was exceptional in that it was in large part held in public and he was allowed to have the services of an attorney, the jury reached their verdict before Hojatoleslam Nouri had completed his defense, calling into question whether he benefited from the "presumption of innocence." A further cause of concern was the composition of the nine-person jury, appointed solely by the judge, which included several prominent political figures, notably anti-reform officials such as Hojatoleslam Hosseinian, director general of the Islamic Propagation Society, who are known for their personal antipathy to proponents of reform.

In light of the above, Human Rights Watch calls on Your Excellency in your capacity as Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran to quash the conviction of Hojatoleslam Nouri, particularly as this case represents the latest in a series in which members of the clergy have been prosecuted for their opinions by this exceptional court. Until such time as the procedures of this court meet with the minimum international standards for fair trial, prosecutions before the Special Court for the Clergy should cease.

Ayatollah Khamenei, as Leader, you have a particular constitutional responsibility to ensure that the basic conditions necessary for free and fair elections, including the right to freedom of expression, are upheld. Freeing Hojatoleslam Nouri and others convicted for their opinions by this court, and abolishing the Special Court for the Clergy are essential steps in this regard.

I urge you to give this matter your urgent attention and look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience .

Yours sincerely,

Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division