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79/11, Tehran or Tunis | Part 2: The Long Shadow of Iran's Executions


20 Oct 2012 22:24Comments

Part 1: The Fork in the Revolutionary Road

Out of repression and terror, a system emerges.

Dr. Iraj Omidvar teaches English at Southern Polytechnic State University, Marietta, Georgia. Any opinions expressed are his own.
[ series ] In my conversations with Tunisians, many were appalled to learn that within two months of the Shah's departure on January 16, 1979, about 200 Iranians were summarily executed.

Within days of his February 1 return to Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had wanted the collapse of Iran's existing constitutional order, claimed that he had "guardianship from the sharia" -- that is, the divine right -- to appoint moderate Islamist Mehdi Bazargan interim prime minister.

Bazargan accepted the terms of this appointment, as did the leadership of the secular National Front, perhaps the most significant moderate, democratic political body at the time, which agreed to join Bazargan's government. Earlier, the National Front, in one of the worst decisions in its history, had already accommodated Khomeini by expelling from its ranks Shapour Bakhtiar, the last constitutional prime minister under the Shah, who had made genuine efforts to resolve the country's crisis peacefully.

When Bazargan accepted Khomeini's appointment decree to run a divinely granted parallel interim government, he ended any chance that the existing constitutional order could be preserved.

And in fact, on February 11, Bakhtiar's government collapsed; with it went not just the country's army and police and much of the government bureaucracy, but also the constitution, the central element of Iran's democratic heritage.

With this collapse, Khomeini and his secretive, unrepresentative, and partisan Islamic Revolutionary Council, which included Bazargan, were free to recast all branches of the government to fit their understanding of Islam and the sharia.

Their preferred state organ for the exercise of power was the judicial branch. Islamic Revolutionary Courts presided over by clerics were created. The "chief justice of the sharia" appointed by Khomeini was his disciple Sadegh Khalkhali (pictured above), the infamous "hanging judge," who issued execution sentences for hundreds of Iranians during his tenure in the position.

That clerics ran these courts surprised many Iranians who had forgotten that in Iran's pre-constitutional period the judiciary was a pillar of clerical power. Jafari Shia clerics such as Khomeini see themselves as jurists, that is, legal experts with a monopoly on the interpretation of the divine law, the sharia. Clerics claim this monopoly given their education in seminaries, which (excepting rare, but significant, periods) have maintained a certain level of ideological cohesion mainly by sealing themselves hermetically against developments in scholarship and science.

In the new Islamic Revolutionary Courts, the country's existing judges, laws, and precedents were disregarded, the new cleric-judges acted as prosecutors as well as juries, and defense attorneys were dispensed with. Not surprisingly, trials often took only a few hours before death sentences were issued.

Execution orders by patently unqualified and unaccountable cleric-ruled courts serving Khomeini's agenda of establishing a cleric-ruled state continued for months after the Revolution. Within 18 months of the Shah's departure, there had been no fewer than 1,000 executions, including at least four by stoning.

In Tunisia, matters could not have been more different. During the 20 months after its revolution, not a single person has been executed.

And despite some instability and instances of lawless behavior, postrevolutionary Tunisians in 2012 do not live in the atmosphere of utter terror that Iranians did in 1979. In Tunisia, lawsuits are being brought up and systematically examined in the courts while the judiciary itself is being investigated by the elected government.

The government recently concluded a five-month inquiry into pre-revolution judicial corruption by firing 80 judges. Members of the Tunisian judiciary -- including lawyers -- went on strike to protest, not the government's findings of guilt but its handling of the findings, which strikers said did not respect the right of the accused judges to due process. The government in response pointed out that the fired judges have access to appeal procedures.

I won't get into the complexities of this issue. I also don't mean to minimize the genuine anger many Tunisians feel at the slow pace of the court cases. But I will point out that trials are being conducted at a level of sophistication and integrity that was entirely absent in 1979 Iran, where Revolutionary Courts were crude tools for exacting revenge and eliminating or terrorizing opponents.

Iran's press shuttered, Tunisia's open and free

Another important difference between the two revolutions is that in Tunisia, 20 months after Ben Ali's ouster, not a single newspaper has been closed or censored. There have been instances of pressure groups -- primarily Salafists -- attacking news outlets or publishers. And there is pressure on the media. Recently, the owner of Nessma TV, which showed the film version of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, was fined about $1,500 for depicting God, a bizarre case that is proceeding through the courts. The publisher of Attounissia was also fined about $700 for printing the photo of a soccer player covering the breasts of his nude girlfriend. Each instance of censorship receives extensive coverage and analysis in the media.

This is a far cry from how matters were back in 1979 in Iran. Khomeini's unchecked power, exercised in a constitutional vacuum, spelled disaster for the country's nascent free press. Within a few short months after the Shah's departure, Iranian newspapers were being banned by the dozen and professional journalists purged, imprisoned, and executed by revolutionary bodies serving Khomeini's partisan Islamic Revolutionary Council, which was masquerading as a national parliament.

Freedom of the press in Tunisia is vulnerable, but by and large Tunisians have been able to establish and maintain a vibrant forum for civic discourse, facilitating the application of social intelligence to the solution of social problems.

Transition to new constitutional frame

Given 20 months of press freedom and the Tunisians' refusal to turn their revolution into a brutal opportunity to settle scores, I don't find it surprising that the country's leaders have been able to take an intelligent and so far effective approach to establishing a new constitutional order. In the Tunisian approach, politicians were elected to the Constitutional Assembly, which has been deliberating the articles of the constitution, while the media, lawyers, and regular citizens discuss the proceedings. Once the process is complete -- it is designed to take a whole year -- the completed constitution will be put to a referendum.

Unfortunately, Iranians cannot claim that their leaders in 1979 took an intelligent or even a minimally credible approach to establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Even before the collapse of Bakhtiar's constitutional government, the first specific task given to Bazargan in Khomeini's unconstitutional appointment decree was to conduct "a referendum...about changing the country's system of government to an Islamic republic."

So on March 30-31 -- that is, less than two months after the fall of Bakhtiar's government -- amid executions and a good deal of lawlessness, and before newspapers, radio and television stations, and public and professional assemblies and unions had been operating long enough to give Iranians effective forums for collective deliberation, Bazargan's government arranged an instant and ruinous yes/no referendum on whether the country should become an Islamic republic.

43657_255.jpgBazargan, who is sometimes praised for wanting to add the word "Democratic" to the "Islamic Republic of Iran," is seldom criticized for promptly retracting this proposal after Khomeini rejected it. And Bazargan did not find anything undemocratic in the fatuous idea of holding a referendum on an Islamic form of government (which as of May 1978 he had considered "still unknown" and without "a clear definition") before the writing of its constitution.

The referendum results were swiftly announced: 98 percent of voting Iranians had said "yes" to the Islamic Republic of Iran, without any opportunity to think through what such a government could possibly mean.

There has been no parallel to this referendum in Tunisia. No faction has been able to impose such an undemocratic "choice" on Tunisians, in part because no faction has that kind of power or audacity, and in part because Tunisian leaders, Islamist or secular, are manifesting democratic and political judgment of a caliber that was rare in 1979 Iran.

Ultimately, of course, the credit goes to Tunisians who -- alert, patient, and skeptical -- are demanding that politicians engage in respectful and rational discourse and are paying close attention to what constitutes genuine democratic practice and what only appears so.

As I will endeavor to show in Part 3, the dismantling of Iran's democratic constitution that Bazargan facilitated and the false choice that he offered Iranians in the referendum were followed by further attacks on their most fundamental democratic rights. These attacks were both enabled and led by moderate Islamists.

By the time Bazargan was done, Iran's democratic heritage was in ruins and Iranians were exposed to an unbridled theocracy that, unlike the monarchical autocracy of the Pahlavis, commits its routine violations of human rights with a seemingly clear conscience.

The Tunisian people, including leaders such as moderate Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi, have very much taken stock of this Iranian track record in ways that many political groups both in Iran and the Iranian diaspora have not begun to.

End of Part 2 | Part 3: The Abandonment of Democratic Principles | Part 4: The Final Capitulations to a Clerical Takeover

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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