Six year prison sentence for the “blogging mullah”


Published in “Die Zeit” on November 22, 2009

The former Iranian vice-president and reformist Mohammad Ali Abtahi has been sentenced to six years in prison. In a show trial he had to make a fabricated confession. Following his sentence he was released on bail.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi defending himself in a courtroom in Tehran

By Martin Gehlen

With dark rings under his eyes and fear in his face, dressed in a badly fitting grey prison garb – this is how the public last saw Mohammad Ali Abtahi, when the state TV presented him in the Tehran show trial months ago.

Now the 15. Revolutionary Court sentenced him to six years in prison and temporarily released him on a bail amounting to an equivalent of 480.000 Euro. This was reported by the state news agency IRNA.

The verdict is not final. According to his daughter, Abtahi was convicted of “conspiracy against the country’s security, propaganda against the government, insulting the president, participating in an illegal demonstration and possession of secret documents.”

The 51 year old cleric, who in the West is also know as “the blogging mullah”, is one of the major masterminds in the reformist camp in Iran. For three years he was the deputy of the prominent president Mohammad Khatami, which so far makes him the highest-ranking defendant to be punished after the protests against the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The new head of Iran’s judiciary Sadegh Larijani, as one of his first acts, had stopped all television broadcasts of the show trials. Since then he has been trying behind the scenes to bring the negative judicial row against approximately 140 defendants to an end – with an arbitrary mixture of toughness and grace. Last week, the administration of the judiciary announced that so far five young protesters had been sentenced to death, 81 more inmates had received sentences of six months to 15 years. All these judgements, like Abtahi’s, have not yet become final.

This is while the campaign adviser of reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, former mayor of Tehran Morteza Alviri, and the Canadian-Iranian Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari were released on high bails without judgements. Bahari left the country the same day and flew to Canada via London. The French language teacher Clotilde Reiss was also released from prison and has since been living in the French mission. Last week she again had to make a court appearance, but without getting any clarification about her fate.

The judgement that was pronounced against Abtahi in the first instance was comparatively mild regarding the framework of the political legal practice of the Islamic Republic. This could mean that the regime does not want to risk a culmination in the confrontation with the leading figures of the opposition – Mir Hossein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami.

In Evin prison, however, the former vice president of Mohammad Khatami was put under so much pressure that in the televised show trial he read a fabricated “confession”: “I am telling all my friends and all those who hear us: The allegation of electoral fraud was a lie and had been designed to fuel unrest in Iran. Iran was supposed to become like Afghanistan and Iraq in order to damage it”, the former vice-president read from a piece of paper.

His wife later reported that during his detention he had been given pills that caused disturbances of the memory, so he could not remember many things. Before he was arrested, Abtahi led an institute for inter-religious dialogue and published daily columns in his popular blog, that has since been shut down. “It was a big fraud” was the headline of his last entry that the politician wrote in the sleepless night following the election day, and 72 hours prior to his arrest.

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