Mass trial of Iranian protesters deepens nation's divides

Conservatives welcomed confessions by defendants rejecting prior claims of election fraud. Critics said the statements were forced.

Hossein Salehi Ara/ Fars News Agency/ AP
Former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, second from right, is seen with other defendants sitting at a court room in Tehran, Iran, on Saturday.

The Iranian regime expanded its efforts to crush the reformist opposition on Saturday with the opening of a mass trial in which the accused are charged with crimes from treason to terrorism. Only state-owned media were allowed to cover the proceedings.

More than 100 defendants – many of them prominent figures and some of them shackled – were denied access to defense counsel as they listened to the array of accusations against them, which also included claims they incited riots and sought to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The trial continued on Sunday, though with only 10 of the accused in court.

The trial appears to be the latest attempt by the regime to shut down disputes over the legitimacy of the June 12 presidential election, which returned hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

The prosecutor outlined an alleged conspiracy between Western media and governments and reformist Iranian politicians to falsely portray the election as rigged, in an attempt to destabilize Iran. He said that confessions and retractions of earlier criticisms by some of the defendants – some of whom looked haggard and drawn after a month in detention – bolstered this tale.

Critics denounce 'show trial'

The opposition rejects this version of events. On Sunday, defeated presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi said "the so-called confessions can be traced to medieval tortures" and described the defendants who spoke as "broken men who would have confessed to anything there were told to."

Formed president Mohammad Khatami described the events as a "show trial" that would "directly harm the system and further damage public trust."

Hard-liners, meanwhile, are calling for the arrests and trials of more opposition leaders. The editor of the conservative newspaper Kayhan accused Mr. Mousavi and former president Hashemi Rasfanjaniof spreading fitnah, an Islamic term meaning communal strife that is considered a great sin. He called for them to be tried for "corruption on earth," a charge that can carry the death sentence.

Plotting a 'velvet revolution'

The charges Saturday accused defendants of having "participated in riots, acting against national security, disturbing public order, vandalizing public and government property, having ties with counterrevolutionary groups, and planning to launch a velvet revolution."

While they carry a maximum sentence of 10 years, defendants could face capital punishment if they are judged to have been mohareb,an Islamic term that means "battling Allah."

Among the accused was Mohammad Abtahi, a high-ranking cleric and former vice president in Mr. Khatami's reformist administration. He appeared in a prison uniform instead of his usual clerical garb and turban, looking gaunt.

Defendants retract claims of fraud

In a press conference shown on state television, Mr. Abtahi withdrew prior claims that the vote was manipulated.

"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," he said, adding that Mr. Khatami's backing of Mousavi's presidential bid was "traitorous."

A former reformist government spokesman also on trial said in his testimony that vote-rigging is "impossible" in Iran.

Another defendant, Kian Tajbakhsh, an American-Iranian scholar who was arrested and released in 2007 on charges of seeking to foment a revolution, alleged that "the main instigators of the riots" were "the government, semigovernment, and intelligence services of the United States," according to state news agency IRNA.

Iranian-Canadian Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari also appeared in court. According to local media, he testified that Western media had been spreading a false tale of election fraud prior to the vote.

Pamela Kilpadi, a New York-based researcher who is working on a book with Mr. Tajbakhsh, dismisses the confessions as not credible. "These current statements have been forced under duress from (people) 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," she says.

Hard-liners welcomed the confessions. "Evidence of Khatami's and Mousavi's betrayal revealed," read a front-page headline for conservative newspaper Keyhan's Sunday edition.

Feeding stability, or future protests?

Public reaction in Tehran was muted, with no protests reported marking the trial. Saeed, a caller into a BBC Persian program from Iran, predicted that the statements by reformists that the elections were not rigged would be enough to cease all further protests.

Others were less sure. "This is not working in the regime's favor," says an Iranian reformist and political exile who fled from Iran to Turkey. "It is only turning those in the dock into heroes in the eyes of the public."

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