February 22, 2003

NEXT TO FALL?:

A Lifelong Dissident Defies Iran's Rulers on Torture (ELAINE SCIOLINO, February 22, 2003, NY Times)
Ezatollah Sahabi is a war horse of the revolution. He began his dissident activity half a century ago after the Central Intelligence Agency staged a coup that overthrew the government and reinstated the monarchy. He spent 12 years in the shah's prisons, and in the heady early days of revolution he was rewarded with a seat on the ruling Revolutionary Council.

Then, repulsed by repression in the name of Islam, Mr. Sahabi turned against the system he helped create, writing and speaking out for the cause of freedom. In 2000, he was silenced - with prison.

Now, in his mid-70's, Mr. Sahabi is free again, in a manner of speaking. And he has dared the Islamic Republic to execute him. Death, he said, is preferable to the torment he suffers at the hands of a justice system that has broken him and continues to pursue him.

"If you believe I'm such a dangerous person, rid yourself and the country of me with my execution, for the sake of the country, the nation, the revolution and Islam," Mr. Sahabi wrote in a letter to the three branches of government that was written last summer and recently made public. "After all," he added, "there is another world, where we will all be accountable before God."

Mr. Sahabi's letter is the latest and perhaps most dramatic manifestation of a battle between political dissidents and a justice system run by clerics that uses various forms of repression, including torture. "This is one of the most important documents in the past decade," said Mohsen Kadivar, a mid-level cleric who was imprisoned for 18 months on charges of spreading lies, defaming Islam and disturbing public opinion with his writings. "There is a struggle today between democracy and dictatorship." [...]

Torture of political prisoners had been a linchpin of the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and many of Iran's revolutionaries had suffered in his prisons. So the Islamic utopia on earth envisioned by its makers was supposed to abolish a repressive system that inflicted pain on those who opposed it.

Symbolically, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made that point from the moment he stepped on Iranian soil in 1979 to make his revolution. The first place he visited was the graves of the political prisoners who had died at the hands of Savak, the shah's secret police force.

Legally, the Islamic Republic's Constitution explicitly bans torture, saying, "All forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confessions or acquiring information are forbidden," adding, "Any testimony, confession or oath obtained under duress is devoid of value."

The Islamic Republic did not end the repression, but simply introduced a new form of it. In addition to physical abuse, there is an open-ended effort to degrade prisoners by bringing morals charges against them and their families, including detailed accusations about sexual habits and activities.


The great tragedy of the Shah's Iran is that things like Savak and the exorbitant splendor with which he celebrated the 2500 years of Persian kingdom created such a distance between ruler and ruled that it undermined his legitimacy, even though much of the Westernization he'd brought and things like land reform had made him reasonably popular. Given the totalitarian definition of the state that Ayatollah Khomeini propounded Revolutionary Iran was never going to be successful:
The fundamental difference between Islamic government, on the one hand, and constitutional monarchies and republics, on the other, is this: whereas the representatives of the people or the monarch in such regimes engage in legislation, in Islam the legislative power and competence to establish laws belongs exclusively to God Almighty. The Sacred Legislator of Islam is the sole legislative power. No one has the right to legislate and no law may be executed except the law of the Divine Legislator. It is for this reason that in an Islamic government, a simple planning body takes the place of the legislative assembly that is one of the three branches of government. This body draws up programs for the different ministries in the light of the ordinances of Islam and thereby determines how public services are to be provided across the country.

...but, by resorting to the same tactics as the Shah employed, the mullahs have delegitimized their own relatively popular movement too. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 22, 2003 7:31 AM
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