Iran crackdown holds as courts target 'rioters'

Riot police and militia keep opposition protesters off streets while regime supporters burn flags and pelt British embassy

Iran's hardline leadership seemed to have gained the upper hand yesterday, with riot police and Basiji militia combining to keep opposition demonstrators from Tehran's squares and Mirhossein Mousavi reportedly under 24-hour guard.

The Iranian film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who is acting as an informal spokesman abroad for the protest in Iran, said Mr Mousavi was no longer able to speak freely to reporters. The opposition leader was not under arrest but "he has security agents, secret police with him all the time," Mr Makhmalbaf said in a telephone interview. "He has to be careful what he says."

There were no reports of violent clashes between Mousavi supporters and the security forces yesterday, unlike in recent days, suggesting the regime's crackdown was working. Opposition protesters were said to be opting for less confrontational tactics: honking their horns, turning on their car headlights and holding up posters.

"People are calmly protesting, more symbolically than with their voices," one Tehran resident, who feared being named, told the Associated Press. Indeed, the only protesters seen in any great numbers were about 100 students outside the British Embassy in Tehran. They burnt American, British and Israeli flags and pelted the building with tomatoes, voicing their anger at what they said was international meddling in Iran's internal affairs.

Speaking from Paris, Mr Makhmalbaf, the director of the 2001 film Kandahar and a friend of Mr Mousavi for 20 years, denied suggestions that the protests against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were losing steam.

"The regime, arguably, is losing ground, not the protests," he said. "Ordinary Iranians are openly rejecting the legitimacy and power of Ayatollah Khamenei. That is entirely new, unheard of," Mr Makhmalbaf said.

He said there were reports from Iran that some of the militia deployed to suppress protest were "speaking Arabic".

"That is unconfirmed but it suggests that the regime is unable to trust its own security forces to repress the Iranian people," he said. "It suggests that people are being used from abroad." Meanwhile in Tehran, authorities vowed that "rioters" held in the worst unrest since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 would be taught a lesson, with a special court set up to study the cases against them. "The rioters should be dealt with in an exemplary way and the judiciary will do that," a senior judiciary official, Ebrahim Raisi, was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency. "Those arrested in recent events will be dealt with in a way that will teach them a lesson."

Official results from the 12 June election gave Mr Ahmadinejad 63 per cent of the votes, almost double Mr Mousavi's share, but there have been widespread allegations of vote rigging.

Iran's state television reported yesterday that the Guardian Council, the country's top legislative body looking into the complaints, had been granted a request for an extension until 29 June.

It was not clear why the council needed the extra five days. Its spokesman had earlier ruled out any possibility of the election being annulled and said discrepancies in the vote-counting were statistically insignificant as far as the final result was concerned.

With the domestic situation apparently under control, Iran's leadership turned its ire on the international community. It expelled two British diplomats from Tehran and lambasted the UN for interfering in Iran's affairs at the behest of London and Washington.

State television also paraded several people it said had been arrested during the weekend clashes, who blamed Western media outlets like the BBC and Voice of America for misleading them into taking "immoral actions".

The clampdown on journalists continued. Iason Athanasiadis, a Greek national reporting for The Washington Times, was the latest confirmed to be in detention. In an indication of how difficult it is to get accurate information from Iran with the media crackdown in force, the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders put the number of those detained at 34, while the Committee to Protect Journalists, in New York, said 13 were still in custody. "Detaining journalists for reporting news and commentary indicates the government has something to hide," the committee said.

Faced with stiffening resistance on all fronts, the opposition must decide what to do next. Mr Mousavi, who was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war, is part of the establishment and has said he does not want to undermine the Islamic Republic.

But the stark warning from the Revolutionary Guards on Monday – when they threatened direct intervention rather than leaving the crackdown to their Basiji street enforcers – seems to have succeeded in muffling the street protests.

Mehdi Karroubi, the cleric who came in third in the presidential elections, has called for a day of mourning tomorrow for the 17 people known to have been killed in the post-election violence, including the young woman Neda, who has become the human face of the so-called Green Revolution.

Asked to explain where the opposition might go from here, Mr Makhmalbaf said Mr Mousavi had urged his supporters not to confront the regime directly but to "adopt the tactics of Gandhi, the tactics of non-violent protest and civil disobedience".

Twitter backlash for Habitat

Habitat was forced to apologise last night after it emerged that the home furnishings retailer had been using the violence in Iran to direct potential customers towards its spring collection.

The store faced an angry consumer backlash after users of the Twitter website noticed Habitat adding keywords linked to the ongoing violence in Iran in its efforts to get customers to sign up for the chance of winning a £1,000 voucher. Habitat's own Twitter account was found to be using Iran- related hashtags (keywords that help Twitterers refine their searches). "HabitatUK: #Mousavi Join the database for free to win a £1,000 gift card," read one of the retailer's posts, above. With much of the world's media banned from reporting on the streets, Twitter has proved instrumental in getting news out from Iran and has seen high traffic volumes. Anyone searching for #Mousavi, trying to get information connected to the man who claims he was cheated out of the Iranian presidency, would have seen the Habitat ad pop up. The move has turned into a PR nightmare for the store. Its Twitter account was forced to delete most of its postings yesterday after Twitterers bombarded it with damning messages. A Habitat spokesman said: "This was a mistake and we will do our utmost to ensure mistakes are never repeated."

Jerome Taylor

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