Islamic court bans opposition party, orders 33 jailed

Sunday, July 28, 2002

TEHRAN, Iran -- A hard-line Islamic court banned the leading opposition party Saturday and ordered 33 leaders jailed for as long as 10 years each.

The court said Freedom Movement leaders acted against national security with the intention of "overthrowing the establishment."

Meanwhile, the younger brother of reformist President Mohammad Khatami was at odds with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over whether to normalize relations with Washington.

Mohammed Reza Khatami called for rapprochement, but Khamenei said such thinking meant giving in to America's expansionist policy.

The court is one of several hard-line institutions controlled by unelected clerics who have thwarted reform efforts of President Mohammad Khatami since his landslide 1997 election. Iranians, who overwhelmingly backed Khatami's program of political freedoms and reforms, have become increasingly frustrated by the perceived lack of progress.

Freedom Movement party leader Ebrahim Yazdi described the verdicts as "unconstitutional," but said the continued repression of reform efforts would only further alienate Iran's conservative establishment from the country's people.

Iranians are "aware of the realities and will not be deceived," Yazdi said Saturday.

Yazdi was not among those sentenced. He was undergoing cancer treatment in the United States when party members were arrested in March 2000.

Those who received jail terms, ranging from four months to 10 years, remain free and have 20 days to appeal.

Eight others were ordered to pay fines of up to $6,250. Eleven were acquitted, according to the agency. The court also dissolved parties close to the Freedom Movement.

The verdicts come months after two dozen party members were tried behind closed doors.

Yazdi said the court was "incompetent" to issue such verdicts because the constitution stipulates that "political crimes and party violations shall be investigated in a general court openly and attended by a jury." Iran's Intelligence Ministry also did not agree with the charges that his party wanted to topple the Islamic establishment.

The verdict also showed hard-liners did not want national solidarity or an easing political tension ahead of Monday's visit by European Union envoy Javier Solana, said Yazdi.

But Hashem Sabbaqian, who served as interior minister in the provisional government that took office after the 1979 Islamic revolution, received the maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.

The Freedom Movement of Iran opposes the country's 23-year-old clerical rule, rejects violence and seeks democratic changes within the establishment. Established in 1961, the party took charge of the country's provisional government after the 1979 Islamic revolution but Mahdi Bazargan, its leader at the time, resigned in protest against the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Mohammed Reza Khatami, the head of Iran's leading reformist party -- Islamic Iran Participation Front, called Saturday for rapprochement with the United States.

"History of Iran-U.S. relations is dark and complicated but we can't live in the past," he told a news conference.

"In the short term, our strategy should be to reduce tensions, and in the long term to adopt confidence-building measures toward the United States."

Khatami criticized Iran's "ideological" U.S. policy and said his party did not agree that Iran needed a foreign enemy to promote national unity.

He also said Iran "lost some opportunities" to patch up relations with Washington during President Clinton's administration, which often cited the 1997 presidential election of Mohammad Khatami as a potential springboard for new relations.

But Khamenei, the supreme leader who has final say on all matters, quickly dismissed notions of normalizing U.S. relations. He instead called for "confronting American agents inside Iran," state-run TV reported.

"Whenever (I) feel that the government, judiciary and parliament have taken a step to deviate from the path (of the 1979 Islamic revolution), the leader will stand against them," Khamenei said.

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