Thursday, March 4, 2010

Moharebeh: The last refuge of a scoundrel?

The death sentence of a 20-year-old student activist has been confirmed by the Islamic Republic's court of appeals, according to opposition news site Nedayeh Sabzeh Azadi, signaling the Islamic regime's increasing reliance on execution and human rights abuses to maintain its grip on power.

Mohammad Amin Valian, a member of the reformist student association of Damghan University and an activist for opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi's presidential campaign, was accused of moharebeh (waging war against God) and 'corruption on Earth' for having participated in protests, having thrown three rocks, and having chanted 'Death to the dictator' on the holy day of Ashura, December 27, 2009.

The appeals court's confirmation of Valian's sentence means that he can be hanged at any moment.

Aaron Rhodes, spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the main evidence against Valian was a photo showing him holding a rock. Ashura is the tenth day of the Islamic month of Moharram, the anniversary of the 7th-Century martyrdom of Imam Hossein, a key figure of Shiism. This year, the opposition staged rallies which were confronted with extreme violence by the regime's security forces. (For this blog's reports and video on Ashura, click here)

The Islamic Republic's judiciary has announced that eleven death sentences have been issued in the trials of post-election protesters, according to Radio Farda. Arash Rahmanipour, 20, and Mohammad Reza Ali Zamani, 38, were hanged on January 28, 2009, on charges of moharabeh after show trials plagued with legal improprieties.

The man behind the show trials and most of the the death sentences, including those of Rahmanipour, Ali Zamani, and Valian, is Judge Salavati, presiding magistrate of the 15th Branch of the Revolutionary Court. Salavati is almost definitely an alias and the first name Abolghassem or Abdolghassem have been used infrequently. It is believed that he is a protégé of former Intelligence Minister and current Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei. No official information is known about the personal past of this figure who holds such a senior position, although his recent judicial history is widely publicized and closely linked to the persecution of dissidents and protesters.

This is not particularly strange in the Islamic Republic, where intelligence figures and judges presiding over 'national security' cases hide their pasts, rarely pose for photographs, and use several aliases. For example, the real name of Judge Hassan Haddad, the deputy prosecutor for security affairs until several months ago whose colorful past includes stints as interrogator/torturer at Evin Prison in the 1980s, is Hassan Zareh Dehnavi.

Judge Mohammad Mogheiseh is another honorable magistrate who has several identities. On December 28, 2009, Mogheiseh sentenced to death Ahmad Karimi, a young carpenter accused of being a ringleader in the post-election unrest. The charge: moharebeh. Judge Mohammad Mogheiseh, also known as Mogheisieh and Nasserian, was one of the tight circle of prosecutors and judges responsible for the mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980s. He was prosecutor at Gohardasht and Evin prisons at the time and operated under the name Nasserian, according to sources who wish to remain anonymous.

The current head of the General Inspection Organization, which investigates state bodies, is Mostafa Pourmohammadi. It was only during his confirmation as Interior Minister in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first government that he informed the Majlis, and only then to bolster his credentials, that he had been the Deputy Intelligence Minister for counter-intelligence for 16 years.

The regime's secretiveness does not only extend to its officials. The names of those arrested, the accused, the charges against them, and even verdicts are routinely kept hidden.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran declared that the identity of the latest protester who has been sentenced to death, presumably Valian, has been deliberately withheld by the judiciary. Nedayeh Sabzeh Azadi wrote that neither Valian, nor his court-appointed lawyer, have been informed of the verdict. This has been an unfortunately common and inhumane practice by the regime's courts. Rahmanipour's death sentence, for example, was allegedly issued as early as October of last year, although he was kept in the dark for months (To view relevant October article on this blog, click here)

Valian and an unnamed friend were arrested in Damghan, a small city 350 km northeast of Tehran with a population of less than 100,000, on January 12, a number of blogs and the Human Rights Activists News Agency wrote at the time. A day before he was detained, he was denounced as an Ashura protester in a newsletter published by his university's Basij association. The pro-regime militia's newsletter called on security forces and university officials to confront Valian. According to Nedayeh Sabzeh Azadi, the Basiji student behind the publication has been wracked with remorse since the death sentence was passed and has been collecting signatures on a petition asking the judiciary to overturn the verdict.

Opposition news site Nedayeh Sabzeh Azadi also contended that the case of moharebeh against Valian had been based on remarks allegedly made by Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi that 'the desecrators of Ashura Day are mohareb.' The news site added that Makarem Shirazi's comment had been considered a fatwa or religious edict by the judicial authorities.

Makarem Shirazi's last fatwa was published, however, in November and condemned the practice of self-flagellation and cutting open the scalp to make it bleed during mourning ceremonies in the month of Moharram, including on the day of Ashura.

Though no fatwa has been issued since that date, on December 29, two days after the protest rallies of Ashura, Makarem Shirazi released a statement in which he said, 'A group of protesters took to some of Tehran's streets and broke the sanctity of the ceremonies [for Imam Hossein] which are a factor of the nation's unity, first with political slogans against [the regime's structure] and then by destroying people's property and setting fire to it.' The statement added, '[...] A destructive and foreign-financed group has infiltrated the ranks of the people and its only goal is to ruin and dissolve the country and hand it over to foreigners.' The English translation of this statement on Makarem Shirazi's web site differs in a noteworthy manner from the original and refers to 'a terrorist and foreign mercenary group.'

Despite Makarem Shirazi's strong words, he does not mention moharebeh in this statement, although he does write, 'Clear and reliable information has reached me that they are promoting the separation of government and Islam.' Could regime officials and state media have taken this remark made by a senior cleric and reinterpreted it to justify their actions and bolster their religious legitimacy and credentials? If this is the case, the effort appears to have backfired.

Only one day after the allegations were made -- faster than the grand ayatollah reacted to the Ashura unrest -- Makarem Shirazi responded to a comment on the Valian sentence left on his web site.

First a word of explanation. Makarem Shirazi is a marja taghlid or source of emulation, a particularly Shiite concept. Almost all practicing Shiites choose a marja, who must be an ayatollah regarded by his peers to be exceptionally learned, as a personal guide who interprets religious texts, issues edicts, and responds to questions. In the old days, such questions, which can relate to the most mundane topics of everyday life as well as to complex theological issues, were submitted in person or through a letter. Today, the queries can be sent via the marjas' web sites. The query page on Makarem Shirazi's site claims that the site has over 10,000 questions and responses in its archives, and invites petitioners to go through the records before submitting their question.

Yesterday, March 3, a reader used the more public guestbook to ask for clarification on the Valian case:
Greetings. Unfortunately many insider and outsider news sources (NB The terms khodi and gheyreh-khodi are used to denote those within and close to the regime, and those who are not) are relating a rumor that the unjust death sentence of the student from Damghan was based on a ruling of Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi. Please inform the public of the reliability or unreliability of this news on your web site.
Makarem Shirazi responded:
I have absolutely not issued such a fatwa concerning such individuals, and this is mischief carried out by some sites. God willing, act according to Islamic precepts and do not hastily pass judgment. [...] I know that some young people, under the influence of certain passions, took part in some violence and they must be enlightened and guided, and if they are not linked to corrupt foreign groups, they must be pardoned.

Makarem Shirazi's answer was incorporated into an official denial that he was behind any ruling labeling Ashura protesters as mohareb and was posted on his site today, Thursday, March 4. The ayatollah's speedy and unequivocal response indicates the uproar that the death sentence has provoked and the desire of at least this senior cleric to distance himself from it as quickly as possible.

In another indication that the moharebeh charge, and consequent death sentence, against Valian is not only legally unsound but, more significantly for the regime, is running into clerical resistance is the fatwa issued today, March 4, by Grand Ayatollah Youssef Saanei. Saanei is a firm supporter of the green movement and famously referred to Ahmadinejad as a 'lying bastard' in a virulent speech on August 12. In response to the question, 'What are the criteria for determining moharebeh and what is the punishment for it?' Saanei responded with the criteria enshrined in the law and added, 'It should not be left unsaid that whenever an organized group has objections against the acts and behavior of a government and these individuals voice their objections, they are definitely not mohareb and their acts are considered the defense of their rights and objection to the oppression that has befallen them, and are not only permissible, but compulsory.'

Extensive research by this blog has failed to unearth any comment made by Makarem Shirazi equating Ashura protesters with mohareb (readers are invited to provide sourced information on this matter). What is certain is that supporting the separation of church and state, mentioned in Makarem Shirazi's December 29 statement, does not comply with the legal definition of 'waging war against God.'

Moharebeh and corruption on Earth (Efsad Fel'arz) are covered in section 7, articles 183 to 189, of the Law of Islamic Punishment. Article 183 defines a mohareb as 'anyone, who in order to provoke fear or to deprive people of freedom and security, takes up arms.' It is unclear whether plainclothesmen and Basijis who have terrorized the population and restricted the people's freedom of assembly, expression, and thought by employing knives, chains, clubs, electrical cables, and guns fall into this category.

Subsequent articles in section 7 expand the range of crimes which are considered moharebeh. Article 185, for example, considers armed robbers to be mohareb. But more significantly, considering the calls made by senior officials and regime supporters to brand opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and by extension the opposition movement, as mohareb, article 186 provides, 'The members and supporters of any organized group or association which wages armed revolt against the Islamic government [...] are mohareb, even if they do not belong to the armed wing. [...] A united front, which is composed of various groups and individuals, is subject to the same verdict.'

The charge of 'moharebeh' or waging war against God is a particularly heavy one in the regime's Law of Islamic Punishment, but the possible penalties, though they may include state-sanctioned violence described in excruciating detail, are at the discretion of the judge and do not necessarily involve death. Article 190 defines four possible verdicts for a mohareb, though strangely the first two options are execution or hanging. This is because the regime reserves the right, enshrined in article 195, to bring about death by crucifixion. The Law of Islamic Punishment warns that the manner in which the guilty party is bound to a cross must not result in immediate death and that if the person is still alive after three days, he or she must not be put to death. The other possible penalties are amputation of the right hand and left foot, or exile (ostracism) for no less than a year. Some Islamic jurists consider the last option to also include loss of civil rights and a ban on certain activities, for example journalism.

As article 191 explains, the judge may choose any of these four verdicts, even if the mohareb has committed murder. That judge Salavati sentenced Valian to death for having thrown rocks on the religious holiday of Ashura is indicative of the intransigent position the regime has chosen to take in order to subdue the population.

Abdolfattah Soltani, prominent human rights lawyer and member of the Defenders of Human Rights Center co-founded by Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that the absolute condition for moharebeh is armed activity. 'This has been clearly stated in all texts of Fiqh (religious jurisprudence). In articles 186 and 189 of the Islamic Penal Code, several conditions have been elaborated upon and in particular these articles clearly state, that if a group has been formed that engages in armed struggle, and if a person who is a member of such a group or associates with it promotes its goals through armed activity, then that is considered Moharebeh. Therefore, the condition of armed activity is essential in charging someone under Moharebeh and the person must have carried out effective actions. If these conditions are not present then the charge of Moharebeh cannot be applied,' he said.

Soltani was arrested on June 16, 2009, four days after the disputed presidential election, and was held in prison for 72 days for 'being skeptical about the results of the election,' as he was told by Judge Majid Matin Rasekh (also an alias?).

The human rights organization asked Soltani if throwing rocks can be considered moharebeh. 'Absolutely not,' he responded. 'If a person is arrested because of association with an armed group then moharebeh may apply. But if an ordinary person, for whatever reason, such as anger or losing his temper, throws a stone, aimed at the destruction of some property or hurting someone, then there are other legal charges applicable and such actions do not rise to the charge of moharebeh.'

It is sometimes said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But in the Islamic Republic, it seems that lies and death and the Islamic Law of Punishment have become the last refuge of a scoundrel. A supreme scoundrel.