Iran’s hardline leadership barked its most defiant response to attempts to overturn the election of President Ahmadinejad today by putting more than 100 people on trial, including some top figures in the reformist movement. It seemed clear, however, that the real target of the trial was not in the courtroom – Ayatollah Rafsanjani.
The size of the trial was completely unexpected – previous reports had said trials of about 20 people would begin today – but there were several signs this had been more than a few days in the making. What emerged suggests a carefully orchestrated attempt to blacken the opposition, particularly Rafsanjani, by “proving” that the post-election protests were part of an organised and huge foreign plot involving various global media outlets, human rights organisations and think tanks. The Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi was specifically named. Despite strong condemnation from the very top of the clerical establishment of the use of forced confessions, it seemed clear from the outset that confessions will play a key part in the trial.
Another key strand appeared to be to tie in the protests with the outlawed Mujahedin Khalq organisation and through it more directly to American involvement. A number of those named in the indictment appeared to be facing charges related more to alleged Mujahedin activity before the election, although it was not wholly clear, given the confused manner in which the trial is being reported. Fars news agency, not renowned for its accurate or even logical reporting, was the only outlet allowed actually to report the proceedings first-hand.
Fars said at least four prominent reformers had confessed that the vote was not rigged and the claim of fraud was baseless. Most startling was the supposed confession of the highest profile defendant, Mohammad Ali Abtahi a former vice president under Mohammad Khatami, who accused Rafsanjani of colluding against Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and seeking to avenge his 2005 election defeat by Ahmadinejad. According to Fars, Abtahi claimed Mir-Hossein Moussavi, Khatami and Rafsanjani had taken an “oath” not to abandon each other as they prepared to stage a “velvet revolution”.
Although the trial was not open to the mainstream press, the state broadcaster showed a packed courtroom with rows of mainly young defendants, some handcuffed, all in grey prison gear. Most prominent among the defendants were:
— Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former vice-president;
— Mohsen Aminzadeh, former deputy foreign minister
— Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, former government spokesman
— Behzad Nabavi, former Majlis deputy speaker
— Mostafa Tajzadeh, former deputy Interior Minister
— Mohsen Mirdamadi, leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, one of the parties the trial appears intent on targeting. The indictment accused the front of having had “contacts with a British spy”.
— Kian Tajbakhsh, the Iranian-American social scientist whose case had been linked to that of Hossein Rassam, the Iranian employee of the British embassy currently released on bail;
— Maziar Bahari, the Canadian-Iranian journalist who was working for Newsweek magazine.
The IRNA news agency quoted the indictment against the defendants as saying: “These parties planned, organised and led the illegal gatherings and riots.” It listed the main charges as acting against national security by planning unrest, taking part in a “velvet revolution”, having contact with the outlawed Mujahedin Khalq, attacking military and state buildings and conspiring against the ruling system. The first charge could result in the death penalty.
The centrepiece of the first day was clearly the “confession” of Abtahi. According to Fars he echoed official accounts that the election was healthy. “I believe the reformists had prepared for two or three years for this election, in order to limit the powers of the supreme leader,” Fars quoted Abtahi as saying. “I want to tell all friends that there was no fraud in the election, it was just a lie to build the protests around.” Abtahi said Moussavi had proclaimed victory before the ballot boxes were counted by the Interior Ministry. “Fraud did not exist in Iran [in 2005]… when the difference between Karroubi and Ahmadinejad was less than 500,000. I am perplexed how the issue of fraud is discussed now that there is an 11 million discrepancy in the votes. [So] those who did not believe 500,000 was fraud today call an 11 million discrepancy a fraud.” Accortding to Fars Abtahi said Moussavi was delusional in thinking a major election fraud had taken place. Abtahi said the word fraud was used as a “code word” to mobilise the people and encourage them to take to the streets. “The practice of keeping the people in the streets under the slogan of fraud is something that could be considered acceptable.”
Abdul-Reza Mohebati , the Deputy Prosecutor-General of Tehran’s public and revolutionary courts, told the hearing that those on trial had had considerable dealings with the foreign media, which he said had played a big role in the post-election frenzy by trying to provoke people to hold illegal gatherings and riots in a bid to intensify the unrest. “It should be noted that the foreign media, including BBC Persian, VOA, Al-Arabia, Radio Farda and Radio Zamaneh, have played a salient role in training [rioters] and provoking illegal gatherings and unrest.”
He quoted Newsweek’s Bahari as saying the policy of the western media was based on spreading the idea that the election was fraudulent even before voting started. He said Bahari told him: “I asked about the issue from Mr Khatami in an interview and after the interview I witnessed a movement in the country which accorded with the classic paradigms of a velvet revolution.” The New York Times reported that Bahari was taken to speak to journalists outside the courtroom where he delivered “a short, chilling lecture on the media’s alleged role in fomenting a ‘velvet revolution’. He then asked forgiveness from the Iranian people and the supreme leader”.
Mohebati also said some of the rioters had confessed to having links with the Mujahedin Khalq and said that they had received training at the Mujahedin’s Camp Ashraf in Iraq “to conduct sabotage and terror operations and organized activities [inside Iran].” He named several who had confessed to being Mujahedin members (see this PressTV report for details), and with some he detailed contacts they are alleged to have had with Israeli and, particularly, American officials in Iraq. “The suspects held numerous meetings with US officials in Dahook, Erbil, the Rabia regions bordering Syria and Suleimanieh, where they received funds and returned to Tehran to carry out their mission,” according to the indictment. Reuters, Fars pictures from the trial, and more pictures, Fars, PressTV, Fars, PressTV, New York Times