THE ROVING EYE The
humanist reformer By Pepe
TEHRAN - If only Iran's reformist
movement had listened long and hard to Emadeddin
Baghi, social sciences researcher, religious
studies scholar, journalist, author of 20 books
(six of them banned), former political prisoner
and one of the country's foremost dissident
He was certain former
president and still head of the Expediency Council
Hashemi Rafsanjani would lose the latest Iranian
presidential elections, which he did, beaten by
former Baghdad mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad in a
run-off between the two. The main reason was "the
gap between reformists and the people". In fact,
as early as 1997 Baghi had written an essay called
"Bread or Freedom?" in a book titled The Rights
of Opposition. For the past three years he has
been reminding his friends "that the meaning of
'democracy' is known only to us, not to the
average people. We should start social work. I was
trying to tell them we
change. Reformists in their literature are too
remote. We should talk about human rights."
Baghi repeats the cry of the reformists
that bassijis ((Islamic vigilantes loyal to
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), interfered
with the voting, and votes were "twisted",
especially in Isfahan and Mashhad, the fiefdom of
hardline Ayatollah Tabasi, known as "The King of
Mashhad". " In the first round the regime was not
openly promoting anybody. They knew for sure there
would be a second round." Only then was a massive
pro-Ahmadinejad campaign unleashed.
There's an undeniable atmosphere of
goodwill around Tehran regarding Ahmadinejad.
Average people in the bazaar, the mosque or the
teahouse say he has sent all the right signals at
the start of his presidency. He may be coining an
Iranian version of compassionate conservatism.
Baghi says, "Maybe Ahmadinejad wants to do
the right thing. But they [the system] cannot do
it." Baghi doesn't think "the Iranian government
embodies the totality of power. We as journalists
and politicians may also have a role. Our behavior
can give them the excuse for restrictions, or the
closing down of newspapers. Or we can be wise
enough not to let them." Baghi is very much aware
that international public opinion is also alert.
"Iran is not Iraq or Afghanistan. Here there is
distribution of power, political groups, religious
clerics with different opinions. From the cultural
point of view, Iranians have proved their worth,
but sometimes we do unpredictable things ... ."
Two men in a cell In a 1999
hardliner offensive attacking and closing down
newspapers, Baghi was arrested along with two
other "powerful journalists" - as the guardians of
the Islamic republic dubbed them. One of these was
Akbar Ganji, who would become Iran's most famous
seven-and-a-half years, Baghi served three before
he was released on appeal. "While in jail I
realized that the rights of all prisoners were not
being fulfilled." There are roughly 130,000
prisoners in Iran: officially, the Islamic
republic "has no political prisoners". Three years
ago, again a free man, Baghi formed a
non-government organization (NGO), Defending
Prisoners Rights Society, the first and the only
one of its kind in Iran, connected with the
London-based Penal Reform International and also
Amnesty International. The NGO relies on 100
volunteers and private donations: companies are
"afraid to help" - yet one more case of invisible
censorship by the system.
at length the major reasons for his detention.
Number one was a 1999 article, "Execution and
Ghesal", in which he debunked a series of rules in
Islamic law that govern the courts. "They accused
me of distorting Islamic law." Eleven top clerics
and five grand ayatollahs - including the
extremely respected Hussein Ali Montazeri (Baghi's
teacher at his hawza - school of
traditional Islamic studies - in Qom), Saanei and
Ardabili (a previous head of the Judiciary) -
wrote a letter on his behalf and said his
criticism was not against Islam. "But the
judiciary didn't listen to them." The paper where
the article was printed was shut down and its
editor was arrested. Dissident Grand Ayatollah
Montazeri - who spent five years under house
arrest, with his hawza in Qom shut down -
remains a thorn in the side of the regime.
Number two accusation centered on Baghi's
1998 book, The Tragedy of Democracy in
Iran , about the so-called "chain murders"
of opposition figures, three writers and a
politician - which then president Mohammad Khatami
himself said were conducted by Ettellat, the
intelligence services. The government said the killers
were Israelis. Baghi argued this was an inside job.
He was accused and condemned as a security threat
to the Islamic republic. "There were many
killings throughout the 1990s, in the time
of [Hojattoleslam Ali ] Fallaliah as minister
of intelligence." Fallaliah's deputy at the time
was none other than Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the
new, Ahmadinejad-appointed minister of interior.
There are widespread fears in progressive circles
in Tehran that Pourmohammadi may be worse than
the Taliban. Baghi's conclusion is bleak: "With
the same hardliners in place in top positions, closing
down of newspapers and arrest of journalists and
intellectuals are again a distinct possibility."
Baghi says he suffered "no physical
torture" while serving his sentence in Tehran's
notorious Evin prison. "For the first six months
we were put in single cells, disconnected from
everything. For the next six months, we were five
in one cell." He was with Ganji, and then the two
lived in the same cell for the next two years.
They could read newspapers, listen to the radio
and watch TV and had "one hour a day of sunshine".
They could receive letters, but no phone calls.
Last Saturday, Ganji was released from
Millat hospital after ending a 65-day hunger
strike. His immediate future is still unclear,
although the latest reports suggest that he is
back in prison. In August, UN Secretary General
Kofi Annan sent a letter to Ahmadinejad directly
requesting him to free Ganji for humanitarian
reasons. Negotiations are ongoing.
wife, Massoumeh Shafii, is hopeful that "officials
will fulfill their promise and Ganji will be
transferred home within the next few days".
Ahmadinejad will have to convince a lot of irate
turbans. Hardliners treat Ganji like the plague.
He called for a boycott of the presidential
election and wrote that Khamenei, according to the
father of the revolution Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini's own thoughts, should be impeached - a
supreme offence in the Islamic republic. Ganji
refers to Khamenei as "the Sultan". As much as
Baghi wants to proceed with caution, Ganji is
no-holds-barred - for him, the national motto must
be nothing less than "the Sultan must go" - a
stunning echo of "the Shah must go" of 1978 in the
year prior to the Islamic revolution.
Baghi dismisses an alleged rift between
himself and Ganji as "nonsense", part of an
ultra-conservative campaign to discredit them
both. Baghi said one of Ganji's doctors told the
jailed journalist "they want to discredit you.
They want to prove that you were lying during your
hunger strike", taking intravenous vitamin
injections. Baghi hopes "the judiciary decides
soon to dismiss him". The frail Ganji - he lost 30
kilograms during his hunger strike - still has six
months to fulfill his six-year sentence.
Battling the ultra-conservatives In 2004, Baghi defied the system again - in a
piece published in English by Stanford University
Press. The Interior Ministry told him "you are
insisting on your violation". But this time he was
not arrested, although he was warned, "You will
keep writing until they execute you."
has another book ready for print, The Right of
Living, which he describes as a scientific
(from an Islamic point of view) comparison between
the UN Declaration of Human Rights and Iranian
law. But he won't get official permission to get
published. Not when the new minister of culture
and Islamic guidance is hardliner Safar Harandi,
the former head of the ultra-conservative Kayhan
newspaper. Baghi is dying to meet him personally.
Reaction in holy Qom is always divided as far as
Baghi's writing is concerned. "But the
ultra-conservatives [against him] always got the
Baghi has a long and winding road
ahead. His passport is confiscated: he cannot
leave Iran. Apart from his NGO work, he is a
columnist for the highly influential reformist
newspaper Shargh (daily circulation 120,000). His
own newspaper, Jommuriyat, was closed down after
he left jail; it had the second-highest
circulation, behind Shargh.
"Now I try not
to create problems for Shargh," he adds with a
smile. The paper's chief editor is his
just-married son-in-law, at 27 the youngest editor
in Iran. "He was also arrested. Because he was so
young and he writes so well, the interrogators
thought he was a front for another writer." Shargh
is financed by Muhammad Mazaheri, a wealthy player
in the construction business. Pragmatic, the paper
supported Rafsanjani in the June elections. Its
role now is to keep Ahmadinejad in check -
especially when the reformist block in the
majlis (parliament) has been reduced to
only 40. The paper should also be "wise" enough
not to arouse the ire of the new, ultra-hawkish
interior minister, "Taliban" Pourmohammadi. Baghi
is more than ready for battle.