(New York, January 15, 2003) - Human Rights Watch (hrw.org) today deplored Iran's closure of two leading independent newspapers on Saturday and called on the authorities to permit them to reopen without delay.
"Iran's remaining independent press has been a key public forum, such as the public debate about parliament's efforts to limit the power of the Council of Guardians," said Joe Stork, Washington director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
On January 11, 2003, branch 1408 of the Tehran Public Court ordered the suspension of Bahar (Spring), a daily newspaper, "until further notice." In a letter to Ahmad Majed Jamei, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the court stated that the newspaper "insulted the authorities," without any elaboration. The managing director of Bahar, Saeid Pour-Azizi, is the General Director of President Khatami's Office on Information and News.
On the same day, the Special Court for the Clergy ordered the closure of Hayate-No for publishing a caricature showing former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressing his thumb to the head of a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice. The cartoon was originally published in the United States sixty-five years ago. The court claimed that the image of the judge-who is elderly, bearded and wearing a black robe-bore a resemblance to the late leader, Ayatollah Khomenini.
The cartoon was published last week with little reaction but in response to the court decision, hundreds of conservative seminary students in Qom, a religious city in central Iran, demonstrated to condemn publication, and religious seminaries throughout Iran were ordered closed on Sunday to protest the alleged insult.
"The conservatives have seized on any pretext to shut the forum provided by the press down," said Stork.
Stork noted that before its closure, Bahar had reported on funding of Iran's television broadcast organization, which is accountable only to the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Another recent Bahar report concerned the purchase by the Alzahra Society, a charitable foundation whose board includes two high ranking members of the Council of Guardians, of hundred millions of rials of stocks.
The public court summoned for hearing the managing director of Bahar, Hadi Khamenei, himself a cleric and parliamentarian and a strong opponent of the policies of his brother, the Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Special Court for Clergy also ordered the prosecution of all involved in publishing the cartoon. The Iran New Agency (IRNA) has reported that on Sunday, two members of the editorial board of Hayate-No, Alireza Eshraghi and Rahman Ahmadi, had been arrested. Their whereabouts are not known.
Under Iranian law, only the Press Supervisory Board within the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance can order the closure of newspapers and magazines. However, in practice since April 2000, more than 90 newspapers have been closed on the orders of judicial officials.
"Iran's Judiciary continues to restrict free expression in violation of Iranian law and international human rights law," Stork said. "Bahar and Hayate-No should be permitted to reopen immediately and those arrested in connection with these bogus charges should be released."
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