Editor arrested in crackdown by Iran's old guard

THE EDITOR of one of Iran's most popular newspapers - a legend of the free press - was arrested in Tehran yesterday, accused of insulting Islam.

Mashaallah Shamsolvaezin had been waiting for it to happen. For weeks, he kept a packed suitcase by his side, ready for the day they would come to take him to prison. They came yesterday, four plain-clothes security police who burst into his office.

When Mr Shamsolvaezin spoke to The Independent a few days ago, he was not afraid. In the packed case by his side, he said, were books he had not had time to read. "Really, I need some time to study," he laughed. "It's up to the judge whether he wants to give me the time." It seems the judge has decided.

With his scruffy shirt and laid-back manner, Mr Shamsolvaezin cuts a cosy, avuncular figure. But there is nothing cosy about his work. He is the editor of Asr e Azadegan, formerly Neshat, the flagship of Iran's fledgling free press. Three times, Iran's courts have closed his papers. Three times, with insulting insouciance, he has reopened under a new name. Indeed, since the last closure, he has opened two new papers, adding an economic review to his editorial empire.

Mr Shamsolvaezin's version of journalism has proved very popular in Iran. Asr e Azadegan opened after Neshat's closure last month, and its circulation has already reached 100,000, high for Iran.

Mr Shamsolvaezin threw out the traditional reverential tone of the Iranian press. Iranian papers used to print the full titles of Ayatollahs and other clergy. Not Mr Shamsolvaezin. "It's a waste of paper and ink," he said.

One of President Mohammad Khatami's first reforms after his landslide election victory in 1997 was creating the conditions for a free press - and Mr Shamsolvaezin was one of the first to take advantage. Since then his papers have supported the President, and it is Mr Khatami's enemies who want the editor behind bars.

Like most of Iran's reformers, the editor boasts impressive revolutionary credentials, and was jailed and tortured under the Shah. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution he was invited to work on a new paper, under the control of one Mohammad Khatami. Both their stars have risen since, but both now find themselves pitted against the desperate and ruthless conservatives who do not want to lose control of Iran.

Most pro-Khatami papers are owned by powerful politicians. Asr e Azadegan, owned by its journalists, is the exception. That makes it truly independent, but also vulnerable.

The conservatives still control Iran's courts, and they are intent on curbing Mr Khatami's free press. Not that Mr Shamsolvaezin has shied away from giving them the opportunity. A few months ago, he published an article in Neshat, which said the Islamic law of an eye-for-an-eye infringed basic human rights. Neshat has since been closed, and Mr Shamsolvaezin is now in custody.

"The conservatives are attacking me because they think I want to run for parliament ... but only people who want power run for parliament," said Mr Shamsolvaezin. "I already have power, as a journalist. I am the voice of civil society."

The arrest was delayed until Mr Khatami had ended a state visit to France to avoid adverse publicity - a decision the editor found hilarious: "Now we know we're beholden to Khatami's travel plans," he said. "We're safe whenever he goes out of the country!"

Now the conservatives have their man, but this is unlikely to be the end of Mr Shamsolvaezin. He told me his enemies had asked him how long he would keep up the game of "cat and mouse". His reply? "Until the cat is not hungry any more, and the mouse is safe."

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