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Iran Begins Closed-Door Trial of Dissidents


TEHRAN — Citing concerns over national security and possible embarrassment to government officials, Iran's hard-line judiciary closed the doors of a controversial trial Sunday of dozens of aging political dissidents accused of trying to topple the cleric-run government they helped bring to power 22 years ago.

Iran's major reformist party and international human rights observers quickly denounced the decision to close the politically charged proceedings. So did 27 of the defendants, who gathered across the street from the courthouse in Tehran half an hour before their trial was scheduled to start. Nonetheless, the men appeared relaxed, almost jovial at times, hugging and kissing relatives and supporters.

"We feel much stronger than ever before," said one of the men, who asked not to be identified because the Revolutionary Court has forbidden those accused from talking to the media. "We are fighting for a cause, for freedom."

He and most of the other defendants are members of the Freedom Movement, a religious political party calling for government reform. The party was founded 50 years ago by the late Mehdi Bazargan, who was prime minister after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Bazargan was driven to resign by religious hard-liners during the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran later that year.

Until this year, the Islamic Republic did not interfere with the activities of the movement, but in March, not long before Iran's presidential elections, the judiciary banned the group and charged some of its members with endangering national security and trying to overthrow the regime.

Among those charged was the party's leader, Ibrahim Yazdi, a former aide to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The authorities "do not have any documents or anything to support their claim against the Freedom Movement of Iran," said Yazdi, who is in Houston undergoing cancer treatment. Yazdi came to the United States last year to lecture at colleges on the years since the hostage crisis. He added that the decision to hold the trial behind closed doors is "completely unconstitutional and illegal."

Yazdi said he has been accused of harboring weapons and ammunition at his home in Tehran and using bugging devices to monitor his own telephone calls, all in a bid to overthrow the republic.

"It is ridiculous," he said. "I am 70 years old. I have enough experience to know that even if I want to get involved in subversive activities, I would not keep such weapons in my own home. And I don't need to bug my own telephone."

Yazdi said he is ready to interrupt his cancer treatment and return to Iran if the court agrees to an open trial. If the court continues with a closed trial, he will return only after his physician approves it.

Thirty-one of the 60 defendants were in court Sunday in what was billed as the largest trial of political dissidents held in Iran since the Islamic Republic was founded.

What those arrested are actually charged with is as vague and confusing as the sentences they face if convicted: 10 years or death for activities that until this year had been tolerated by the Islamic Republic.

"We don't actually know what they are going to read to us in terms of charges," the defendant said before the trial. Details of the indictment issued Sunday were not released publicly, but Yazdi said contacts in Iran told him that defendants were accused of subversion and acting contrary to national interest and security.

The timing of the trial is easier to explain, Human Rights Watch officials claimed: It draws attention away from the current New York trip of Iran's reformist president, with whom the right-wing judiciary is at odds. Earlier this year, Khatami expressed "regret" over the arrests.

"These individuals are pawns in the power struggle between Iranian reformists and the conservative clerics who still control the judiciary," Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said Saturday. "The accused have committed no crime other than to exercise their basic human rights to meet together peacefully and express themselves freely."

Iran's largest reformist group, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, which is headed by Khatami's brother, charged in a statement carried by newspapers that the dissidents' arrests were politically motivated and criticized the Revolutionary Court for holding the hearings behind closed doors.

A Revolutionary Court spokesman declined requests for an interview, but in statements published Sunday in Iran's state-run newspapers, the judiciary insisted that those accused had tried to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

As to why the trial was closed, the court said: "Some of the accused have pointed to a number of personalities as their accomplices who have a long and brilliant revolutionary track record. Any mention of such names at an open hearing without their guilt being proved will harm their public reputation and career."

How long the trial will last is unclear, but several defendants said they expected everyone would be tried separately at some point.

The trial continues today.


Times staff writer Erika Hayasaki in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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