Legal rulings in other countries do not often make headlines in the United States. But two recent verdicts in Iran have made democracy activists, both in America as well as around the world, sit up and take notice.
Last week, Hashem Aghajari, whom the Iranian Supreme Court had sentenced to death, had his sentence changed to a five-year prison term following appeals and a rare, direct intervention from Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Aghajari had made comments during a June, 2002, speech that were used by Iran's hard-line judiciary to launch a new front against Iran's embattled "reformist" faction. In his speech, Aghajari took a jab at the very foundation of Iran's theocratic regime, stating that Muslims were not "monkeys" who should blindly follow the teachings of senior clerics.
Aghajari was charged with "insulting the prophets" and with questioning Khamenei's rule. While it is astonishing that one of their "own" (Aghajari was a close confidante of Iranian President Mohammed Khatami) earned for himself a death sentence simply with a verbal assault against Iran's theocratic establishment, one can only imagine what happens in closed trials to those outside the establishment, like students and political activists, who are struggling to bring about real change.
Aghajari's case struck a chord with the Iranian student movement and triggered a grassroots campaign to reverse the court's decision. At Tehran University, some 1,200 students denounced "the medieval verdict" and signed a petition for Aghajari's release. Their action woke up the Iranian parliament, prompting 178 deputies to issue an open letter that called on Iran's judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, to overturn the verdict and allow Aghajari to go free. Following these events, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a rare order for a re-trial, resulting in Aghajari's sentence reduction from death to five years imprisonment.
Aghajari's was not the only Iranian trial to make world headlines this month. Following the Kafkaesque trial of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist and murder victim Zahra Kazemi's, the judge acquitted last weekend the only man charged in the case. The 54-year-old Kazemi was arrested in June of last year for taking pictures outside Tehran's notorious Evin prison. She died from a brain hemorrhage after being struck with a blunt object during interrogation.
Under intense pressure from the West and after warnings from the Canadian government, which later recalled its ambassador from Tehran, Khatami released a statement before the trial, asking the judiciary to identify "the real guilty person." But as a second round of hearings opened, Canadian, Dutch, and British diplomats were bluntly told to stay away. The trial judge then concluded that the suspect, Mohammad Reza Ahmadi, a junior agent, was innocent of any wrongdoing and that Kazemi's death was the result of "an accident" that occurred when she fell in her prison cell.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, a member of Kazemi's defense team, has accused Iran's judiciary of a cover-up. The Kazemi case, however, did focus much attention, long overdue, on the plight of Iranian political prisoners in interrogation rooms.
These two cases provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the Iranian "justice" system, and into the struggle between the ruling clerics and those forces calling for change and reform. On Monday, dozens of political prisoners in Tehran's Evin Prison ended a three-week hunger strike commemorating the July, 1999, Iranian student uprising, demanding the release of all political prisoners. Meanwhile, the mullahs' "justice" system was on full display; in the past few weeks, several people were hanged in public.
But as the struggle for justice continues to unfold in Iran, it is important to note the growing cracks in the mullarchy's wall of injustice. The world's increasing focus on Iran, particularly in light of its role in destabilizing Iraq and developing nuclear weapons - not to mention its ties to Al-Qaeda - provides a constant reminder of Iran's core problem: a fundamentalist regime that will do anything to maintain its grip on power.
Tens of thousands of reform-minded young Iranians-and not the mullahs- are the ones willing to offer a different vision of Iran to the world. The United States, Europe and those concerned about democracy must therefore continue to pressure Iran and increase their engagement not with the regime of today, but with those who are willing to lead the regime of tomorrow.