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Violent Aftermath: The 2009 Election and Suppression of Dissent in Iran

5.       Mass Show Trials

In late July, the former head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, ordered a committee to meet with the reportedly 300 detainees and determine how they were being treated.[550] He declared that the detainees should be processed by August 3 and ordered then-Prosecutor General, Mortazavi, to set bail for those detainees who were not facing serious charges.[551]

The next day, the government announced that it had released close to half the detainees. While making this announcement, Saeed Jalili, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, claimed that those who remained in jail were accused of possessing “firebombs and weapons, including firearms, and who had caused serious damage to public property.”[552] Four days later, on August 1, the first mass show trial took place.[553] Three more show trials followed in August under the supervision of Mortazavi. Following the appointment of Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi as Prosecutor General in August, a fifth session was held on September 14.[554]

Although the sessions were called “trials,” they did not remotely resemble criminal trials as generally understood in domestic or international law. They consisted of the prosecutor reading a document called a general indictment, followed by confessions by selected defendants, often without the assistance of their chosen lawyers. An unknown number of defendants were later accorded individual trials, but many, if not all, were sentenced on the basis of their forced confession.

Similarly, the general indictments were not indictments as normally understood in criminal law. Rather, they were political platforms that broadly laid out the objectives of the government using suspect contentions and assumptions, and forced confessions to expose and describe plot to induce an alleged “velvet coup” in Iran. The Islamic Republic has been obsessed with velvet coup plots since at least the mid-1990s.[555] As described in the first indictment, a “velvet coup” is a Western-backed attempt to democratize (democracy for Western aims and interests) and secularize the Islamic Republic.[556] It is described as a psychological war that uses civil society, academia and media as a means of accomplishing its goals.[557] The term “velvet” refers to its non-military nature.[558] Maziar Bahari’s interrogator, after deciding Bahari was part of the plot, informed him that velvet revolutionaries were worse than violent revolutionaries: “You are worse than any saboteur or killer. Those criminals destroy an object or a person. You destroy minds and provoke people against the Leader.”[559]

The use of mass show trials to intimidate the population was foreshadowed. On June 23, well before any trial, the incoming deputy head of the Judiciary, Ibrahim Raisi, warned that, “Those arrested in recent events will be dealt with in a way that will teach them a lesson. … The rioters will be dealt with in an exemplary way and the judiciary will do that.”[560] A few days later, in his Friday Prayer sermon, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a hard-line member of the Assembly of Experts, instructed the head of the judiciary to use the maximum available punishment to deal with the arrested without mercy.

Anyone who takes up arms to fight with the people, they are worthy of execution. We ask that the judiciary confront the leaders of the protests, leaders of the violations, and those who are supported by the United States and Israel strongly, and without mercy to provide a lesson for all.[561]

5.1       The First Mass Show Trial

On August 1, Iranian state television broadcast the first mass show trial of a hundred defendants. The Revolutionary Court in Tehran was filled with detainees. Some wore prison garb, and others were handcuffed and wearing personal clothing.[562] As would be the case in the sessions that followed, the proceedings began with a reading from the Quran and a speech by Judge Salavati, followed by the reading of a general indictment by the prosecution.[563] Many of the defendants appeared dazed and confused. Some were unrecognizable.[564]

The first indictment purports to set out evidence that the “incidents and turmoil that took place following the elections were preplanned and took place according to the velvet revolution’s timeline of goals and events.”[565] It claims that 100 of the 198 steps proposed in Gene Sharp’s manual of instruction had been executed.[566] Gene Sharp is a former academic at Harvard University who is known for his study and promotion of non-violent action. Most of the evidence in the indictment is derived from alleged confessions of individuals in custody. 

The indictment begins by contending that foreign Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), are focused on creating a “velvet coup” in Iran.[567] It reports that the “velvet revolution projects” were successful in Georgia, Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The targeting of NGOs rests on the confession of an unnamed “spy who is now in custody, and who attempted to play a role in the tenth presidential elections.”[568] The alleged spy is easily identified as Hossein Derakhshan, a Canadian-Iranian blogger who has been in custody without charge since November 2008.[569]

Derakhshan’s alleged confession is also used to describe the “arms” of the alleged “velvet coup.”[570]

The aforementioned spy says the following regarding the arms of the velvet coup in Iran: “The model that has been designed for Iran, like the other countries, has three arms: intellectual, media and executive. Each one of these arms has active subgroups. So for example, the intellectual arm has progressive, religious, progressive secular, capitalist, foreign policy, literature … subgroups, and each of these elements have internal and foreign institutions that play an active role.”[571]

The indictment uses Abtahi’s alleged confession to bolster the government’s theory that the reformists had planned all along to claim fraud in the elections:

[Abtahi] continues by saying: “After Mousavi announced his candidacy, an election committee member (Mr. Mohtashamipour discussed the fraud project. Both Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Mohtashamipour) discussed the fraud project. Both [of them] had strong opinions along these lines, and they established a Committee to Preserve the Votes. It is important to note that most of the reformists believed that no more than 2 or 3 million votes could possibly be fraudulent. In the next meeting, Mr. Mousavi Khu’iniha suggested that they must not let up on the issue of election fraud because they will need it when it is time to cheat.[572]

The indictment claims that the “executive arm” in Iran has six subgroups: the women’s subgroup, the ethnic-racial subgroup, the human rights subgroup, the labor subgroup, NGOs, and the student subgroup.[573] Several individuals are named as part of an “executive arm” of the revolution, including women’s rights activist and lawyer Shadi Sadr and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi.[574] Sadr was arrested on July 17, 2009 and held for over a week, after which she left the country.[575] Ebadi, who has been previously imprisoned in Evin and—more recently—received increasingly dire threats to her life, also remains outside of Iran.[576] In November 2009, the authorities froze her and her husband’s accounts and confiscated her Nobel Peace Prize medal, citing tax evasion.[577]

Also named are labor activist Mansour Osanlou who is currently serving a five-year prison term he received in 2007,[578] and student activist Ali Afshari who left Iran in 2003 after being imprisoned, beaten and tortured in secret detention facilities run by the judiciary during the reform period.[579] Afshari received asylum in the United States where he continues to openly advocate for human rights and non-violent reform in Iran. His activism was cited in the indictment as “the best proof of the link between this subgroup and the velvet coup project in Iran.”[580]

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