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Eye Removal, Mullah-Style By: Angus McDowall
The Independent Online Edition | Monday, July 04, 2005

An Iranian court has sentenced a man to have his eyes surgically removed for a crime he committed as a teenager 12 years ago. Amnesty International has condemned the sentence, reported in the Iranian daily Etemaad, but local human rights groups say these unusual punishments are hardly ever executed.

Reformists and dissidents fear human rights could suffer under the new administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but they believe the new abuses will be political crackdowns. Punishments such as stoning have become much less common, since Iran's Islamic judiciary agreed to suspend such sentences as part of a human rights dialogue with the EU.

Etemaad says the accused, identified only as Vahid, was 16 when he threw a bottle of acid at another man during a fight in a vegetable market in 1993. The top opened - Vahid insists accidentally - and blinded his victim in both eyes. A court said the crime should be judged as qisas, a category for which the Koran stipulates specific punishments, in this case an eye for an eye. The paper said the sentence was to pour acid on Vahid's eyes, but an appeals court ruled it should be done surgically so as not to harm other parts of his face. Amnesty described the sentence as "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment amounting to torture". It called for a change of sentence.

Human rights and legal specialists in Iran say unusual sentences are sometimes passed by Islamic courts, which are bound by rigid Koran injunctions for certain crimes. But they say these punishments are usually used as leverage for the amount of compensation to be paid by the offender to the victim.

In this case, the victim seeks £180,000, which a board of arbitration is trying to reduce because the defendant says he cannot pay. The board is also trying to persuade the victim's family to give up their demand that the crime should be classed as qisas.

"The reformist administration didn't really react much to this sort of case anyway," said Shadi Sadr, a prominent human rights lawyer in Tehran.

"They were more focused on freedom of expression and political dissent. So I don't expect the change in executive to make much difference to cases where Islamic penalties are imposed."

Mr Ahmadinejad said on Sunday: "Today, moderation and tolerance will be our government's main lines, a government of friendship and tolerance that belongs to all Iranians. We will serve members of this nation without considering their tendencies."

But reformists fear a new assault. Iran regularly imprisons journalists who write about taboo subjects such as financial corruption at the top, or criticise the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The reformist journalist Akbar Ganji is currently on hunger strike after being jailed five years ago for reporting the assassination of dissidents. In 2003, a Canadian-Iranian journalist was killed in the judiciary's custody.

Over the past few years, Iran's conservative judiciary has waged a war of attrition against reformist and dissident publications, jailing journalists and bloggers, closing newspapers and banning websites.

Until now, reformist politicians could at least speak out against abuses. But the new administration is expected to work more closely with the judiciary. Abuses are usually raised by international bodies including the EU, which can address their concerns only through Iran's foreign affairs ministry, not the judiciary.

Ayatollah Shahrudi, the head of the judiciary, has declared torture unlawful. But a Human Rights Watch report last year found it had become more common.

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