Turmoil at the tomb of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri


Published in “Financial Times Deutschland” on December 20 2009

In recent weeks, the government in Iran has intensified attacks against the opposition. The death of the dissident cleric Hussein Ali Montazer could now fuel new protests of the opposition.
By Benjamin Dierks

Mourning Iranian women take photos of the deceased dissident cleric Hussein Ali Montazeri in Qom (Photo: AFP)

The insult could hardly have been deeper. In barely more than one sentence, state media in Iran announced the death of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri on Sunday. As reported by news agency IRNA, Montazeri had died on Saturday at the age of 87 after a long illness. His religious position was not mentioned, not a word about his role in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, or his later work in the Republic.

The death of every other figure of a comparable position would have been honored with permanent broadcasts on TV and public mourning. The dictated silence in Montazeri’s case shows the huge rift between the regime and one of its harshest critics. Among the few prominent figures who condoled to the family of the deceased was Grand Ayatollah Youssef Saneie, who, like Montazeri, is a dissident cleric.

Supporters of Montazeri, however, on Sunday in their thousands flocked to the theologian stronghold in the city of Qom in South Iran, where the cleric will be buried on Monday. The opposition leaders called for a national day of mourning. “He will be remembered as a man who sacrificed his political life for his principles,” says Baqer Moein, an expert on Iran. He was an inspiration for other opposition supporters. His funeral could turn into a staging area for dissidents. In opposition circles, the talk was of up to one million mourners who could gather in Qom on Monday. The riot police already on Sunday was present all over Qom, according to a reformist website.

The rhetoric of the regime against opposition supporters had become much sharper in the past few days, since during a demonstration of dissidents on occasion of the official Student Day two weeks ago students had allegedly burned pictures of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and torn them apart. Montazeri was one of the few to confront the baiting that followed the incident. He stated that Khomeini had been neither innocent, nor superhuman or inviolable. For years he has been accusing conservative clerics of establishing a dictatorship in Iran in the name of Islam. On Saturday, Iran’s leaders issued warnings to the opposition to not come to Qom.

In state organized rallies against the alleged desecration of Khomeini, thousands of supporters of the regime protested in Tehran and other cities. Clerical whips on sound trucks instigated the crowd outside Tehran University. Apart from the usual slogans of “Down with USA” and “Down with Israel”, slogans were heard calling for the death of opposition leaders like Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. “Mousavi, this is the last warning,” was one chant. “Execute the leaders of rebellion.”

Part 2: A dictatorship in the name of Islam
Montazeri with his sober assessment of Khomeini was largely isolated. After the regime launched the campaign against the alleged enemies of Khomeini, most opposition leaders have remained calm. Other than initially expected, Moussavi did not call on his supporters to attend the demonstrations scheduled for last Friday. The regime had announced it would approve Moussavi’s claim under the precondition that the dissidents join the protests of supporters of the leadership. Following the alleged fraudulent re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Montazeri had backed the defeated candidate Moussavi and the protests led by him.

While supporters of the regime on the one hand, and the opposition on the other hand are heading towards renewed confrontations, first signs of progress have emerged in the investigations into the violence during the post-election unrest. A military court accused the guards of the Kahrizak detention center in the South of the country of having killed three political prisoners. The alleged victims had been arrested during the protests against the election victory of Ahmadinejad in June. In the indictment announced on Saturday by the military prosecutor, it said that the prisoners were beaten to death. The prison authorities had indicated meningitis as the cause of death in all cases.

The opposition assumes that 70 people died in the post-election protests. About 4000 people had been arrested during the clashes following the election. Most of them were brought to Evin in northern Tehran. 200 of them, however, were brought to Kahrizak. The prison was later closed due to various shortcomings.


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