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Reformist Mayor of Tehran Pleads His Case as Trial Ends

Iran: Passionate appeal is made before TV audience. Verdict could affect president's policies.

July 12, 1998|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEHRAN — In a dramatic finale to a trial that has riveted this nation, Tehran's pro-reform mayor gave a powerful, four-hour defense of himself and his administration Saturday, denying corruption allegations lodged by conservatives opposed to liberalizing Iran's Islamic rule.

The proceedings had implications far beyond the fate of Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, an energetic and somewhat dour technocrat who has razed slums, cleaned the air and built parks and housing during eight years as mayor of Iran's sprawling capital city.

Karbaschi's supporters charge that the prosecution is an ill-disguised bid by conservatives to undermine Iranian President Mohammad Khatami by depriving him of one of his most senior advisors and supporters.

Khatami is a moderate cleric whose surprise election victory last year has transformed Iran's political and social landscape.

Karbaschi managed the campaign that ended in Khatami's landslide victory in May 1997, when Khatami garnered 20.7 million of 29.7 million votes cast in a startling rebuke to the hard-line clerical camp.

During his first months in office, Khatami has allowed greater freedom of speech and expression, urged milder application of Islamic laws and made gestures toward thawing Iran's relationship with the United States, calling for opening up a dialogue with "the great American people."

The trial of Karbaschi has been recorded and broadcast in full on state radio and television, the first time Iranians have ever been able to watch a high official on trial. Streets were quiet as people bent over their radios and TV sets to hear and watch what has become known here as "The Karbaschi Show."

"It is like a very exciting TV series now," said a Tehran woman who asked that her name not be used.

The audience Saturday night saw Karbaschi's emotional protestation of innocence when he spoke of the sacrifices that he had made during his life for the cause of Iranian revolution, including beatings and imprisonment during the time of the late shah.

Karbaschi's voice broke in the packed courtroom when he spoke of the ordinary Iranians who have rallied to his defense since he was arrested in April, among them a schoolgirl from a working-class family who mailed him her only treasure: two small gold coins.

The seventh and final session of the trial took place before Judge Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, who under Iran's judicial system functions simultaneously as chief investigator, prosecutor and judge.

Ejei promised that his verdict will be announced publicly as soon as he has made his decision, but he did not indicate how long that will take.

The trial is also potentially explosive for the authorities. If Karbaschi is convicted and sent to prison, many Iranians say they are ready to protest in the streets in order to defend the liberalizing trend instituted by Khatami.

In April, when Karbaschi was briefly incarcerated, there were several violent clashes between demonstrators and police.

The conservatives, who still dominate the country's parliament and judiciary, appear to be concentrating their attacks on key aides of the president, such as Karbaschi, rather than risking a frontal assault on Khatami, who remains extremely popular, especially with young people.

Last month, conservatives in the Majlis, or parliament, forced the removal of another high Khatami aide, Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri, and according to at least one analysis published here, Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani could be impeached by parliament next.

But Khatami has proved resilient to the assaults.

After Nouri's removal, he appointed an equally reform-minded successor to Nouri as interior minister and immediately appointed Nouri to a senior post in the presidency.

The charges against Karbaschi are essentially that he misappropriated public funds to reward friends and supporters and that he illegally funneled money into the Khatami political campaign last year.

In his defense, Karbaschi said that he always acted within the spirit of Islam that he learned as a theological student and that he was well within his legal authority as mayor to reward certain municipal managers with raises and bonuses.

The public money that went into the Khatami campaign, he said, was allocated with the knowledge of other government officials and was considered at the time a matter of public good to foster a strong, competitive election.

Karbaschi, who has maintained that he has been denied the right to introduce certain witnesses and that some of the charges against him have been based on affidavits produced through police beatings, fiercely defended his integrity and motives.

"There has been [about $4.4 billion] under the control of the municipality, and I know that not one rial of that went into my own pocket," he said at one point.

Judge Ejei on Saturday took pains during the proceedings to deny that charges against the mayor were politically motivated.

"If it was a political trial, would we broadcast it like this? It would be held in secret," he told the defendant sharply. "We let you talk more than any defendant would be allowed in any courts in other parts of the world."

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