Iran reformists face 10 years jail for 'propaganda'

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The Independent Online

Three prominent Iranian reformists yesterday took the stand in a trial that deals a heavy blow to the pro-democracy movement of President Mohammad Khatami.

Three prominent Iranian reformists yesterday took the stand in a trial that deals a heavy blow to the pro-democracy movement of President Mohammad Khatami.

Ezzatollah Sahabi, Ali-Reza Alavitabar and Monirou Ravanipour appeared in Tehran's revolutionary court on charges of "acting against national security, and propagandising against the regime", when they attended a controversial conference in Berlin last April. If convicted, they - along with 13 other defendants - face sentences of up to 10 years.

The trial - which began on Sunday but was only opened to the Iranian press yesterday - confirms the success of religious conservatives in their struggle to muzzle reformists led by Mr Khatami. Dozens of pro-Khatami newspapers have been closed down, and many of the President's supporters jailed. With further jail sentences, reformists may fear for the survival of their movement.

It is no accident that both Mr Sahabi and Mr Alavitabar, who pleaded not guilty, are prominent journalists. Print journalism is the field where reformists initially made most gains after Mr Khatami's election in 1997 - and where they have since been most successfully opposed.

Ms Ravanipour, who reportedly asked for more time toprepare her case, is a prize-winning novelist. The remaining defendants include journalists, lawyers and a politician.

One of the defendants faces execution for apostasy. Besides attending the Berlin conference, Hasan Yousefi-Eshkevari outraged conservatives by querying the theocratic basis of the Islamic state and the need for women to wear head coverings. Because he is a cleric, Mr Eshkevari's trial last month took place in a clerical court. The verdict has yet to be announced.

To Iranian conservatives, the Berlin conference exemplified the excesses of reformists after their victory in February's parliamentary elections. Organised as a forum for sober debate, the agenda was upstaged by a man who stripped naked in protest at the regime and a woman who upset Islamic proprieties by dancing. Iran's conservative-dominated state television channels broadcast these scenes exhaustively, whipping up outrage among hardliners.

In their defence, the participants say they were dismayed by the disruptions. "My clients never expected such scenes," the defence lawyer Farideh Gheirat told The Independent. "If they have caused offence, they apologise." Ms Gheirat denied a prosecution assertion that her clients pleaded guilty at closed-doors court session on Sunday.

The trial tilts further the delicate relationship between Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the reformist President Khatami.

Mr Khamenei has increasingly turned on radical reformists, and last month pressurised the culture minister to resign.

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