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Iran’s President-Elect Confronted With Plea for Detained Opposition Leader’s Freedom

Originally published at: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/17/irans-president-elect-confronted-with-plea-for-detained-opposition-leaders-freedom/?smid=tw-share

At the end of his first news conference since winning Iran’s presidential election, the moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani was confronted, live on state television, with the raised expectations his election has stirred.

Video of the incident, which was quickly copied to YouTube and shared on social networks by Iranian expatriates, showed Mr. Rowhani speaking at the end of the event when a voice from the back of the crowded hall shouted a plea for him to remember the detained opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi who has been under house arrest for two years.

Mr. Rowhani, who emerged from Iran’s conservative clerical establishmentbut was supported in the election by its reformist wing, quickly wrapped up the news conference without comment.

The fate of the detained politician, who claimed that the last presidential election in 2009 was rigged in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has remained a focal point for the opposition, as the expatriate Iranian journalist Golnaz Esfandiari observed on Twitter.

Chants in his honor were heard at Mr. Rowhani’s campaign rallies last week, and on the streets of Tehran and other cities during postelection celebrations on Saturday, but none of those events were carried live on state television, as the Reuters reporter Yeganeh June Torbati noted minutes after the incident.

There was some dispute over the exact wording of the plea, but Rasmus Elling, a sociologist who studies Iran and has worked as a translator,suggested that it was, “Rouhani yâdet bâshe, Mir-Hosein bâyad bâshe,” a chant that could be roughly translated as, “Rowhani do not forget, Mir Hussein should be here.”

According to a blogger who writes as @MishaZand on Twitter, this phrase is a slogan that was already circulating on Iranian social networks before it was shouted out on Monday.

Iranian bloggers initially suggested that the news conference was called to a halt because of the shout, but Mohammad Davari, who reports from Tehranfor Agence France-Presse, said later that the man timed his outburst to come at the end of Mr. Rowhani’s last answer “before fleeing the press room unharmed.”

Although no mention of the incident was included in most reports on the news conference in Iran’s state-run media, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency claimed later that the “heckler” was not a reformist but a supporter of Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, a close associate of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Several observers cast doubt on that report, however, including Gissou Nia, the director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

Since Mr. Mashaei, like Mr. Ahmadinejad, is increasingly out of favor with the unelected clerics who hold ultimate power in Iran, and was barred from running in the election, the suggestion that the man who interrupted the news conference was simply a troublemaker associated with that political faction could be an attempt to discredit him and explain away the disruption. (As Ms. Nia pointed out, Mr. Ahmadinejad himself was ordered on Monday to appear before a criminal court after he leaves office later this year, in what appears to be a result of his falling out with conservatives in Iran’s Parliament.)

During a campaign event at a Tehran university last month, Mr. Rowhani clearly committed himself to the release of political prisoners when he was asked directly whether he would work to free Mr. Moussavi — who is currently detained along with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, in their home in central Tehran — and Mehdi Karroubi, another leader of the 2009 protests, who is confined to one floor of a three-story home under the control of the country’s intelligence ministry.

Video of that event, posted online with English subtitles by supporters of the Rowhani campaign, showed that the man who is now Iran’s president-elect said: “I hope that the next government will be able to bring about a nonsecuritized environment. I don’t think it will be difficult to bring about a condition in the next year where not only those under house arrest but those who have been detained after the 2009 elections will be released.”

Also on Monday, Iran’s unelected ruling cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, deflected concern about the Iranian democracy in a sardonic update on his Twitter feed that contrasted the Electoral College system used in American presidential elections with the simple popular vote count used to elect the president who serves under him

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Election-2013