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Iranian Judiciary Chief's Measures Aim To Satisfy The Public

By Vahid Sepehri, RFE

Iran's judicial officials, like the hard-line Guardians Council, which also deals with legal issues, maintain they are not engaged in politics. As Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi said recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 2004), there are no political crimes or criminals in Iran because Iranian laws do not mention them as such.

The public, however, has expressed its outrage at reported abuses and the widely-held perception that politics may indeed play a role in how justice is done in Iran. In response, Hashemi-Shahrudi issued a directive on 28 April instructing police, judicial officials, and security agents to refrain from physical abuse when interrogating suspects and to avoid the kinds of practices that human-rights activists associate with dictatorships.

The directive was swiftly ratified by parliament on 4 May as the Bill on Legitimate Liberties and Civil Rights and approved the next day by the Guardians Council, which has in the past rejected initiatives by the outgoing, reformist-dominated parliament, to ban the practice of torture, already outlawed by the constitution.

Ayatollah Hashemi-Shahrudi was at first disinclined to term the directive a response to actual abuses. It "did not mean that its stipulations have not been respected so far," he told a gathering of judiciary officials in Tehran on 10 May, according to "Iran" on 11 May. It was issued "for its importance and as an emphasis...and nobody should draw conclusions...and exploit [the directive]."

But this went against his own assertion that it was inspired by his weekly meetings with members of the public who come to seek justice when they are dissatisfied with court decisions. Hashemi-Shahrudi then admitted at a conference of Tehran provincial judges on 12 May that there "have been offenses [in police and interrogation centers] and [during] transfers to prisons, and people's rights have been violated," according to ISNA.

He blamed these abuses on insufficient supervision. "A person told me his [or her] son was beaten at the police. Who is responsible for supervising [police and interrogation centers]? Where does it say in the law that the police can do anything they like? What happened to supervision by magistrates? What happened to the implementation of just laws," he asked, ISNA reported on 12 May.

Furthermore, he recalled the death in June 2003 of a photographer, Iranian-Canadian Zahra Kazemi, from head injuries apparently received during an interrogation in Tehran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 June and 16 July 2003). If there had been "precise supervision" of police and interrogators, Hashemi-Shahrudi said on 12 May, "why should a case like Zahra Kazemi's carry such a high cost for our society...the directive pays attention to these issues," ISNA reported.

This dearth of supervision, he maintains, is due to the judiciary's immense workload, the result of laws that have made every violation a criminal offense liable to prosecution within the judicial system. This, along with the suppression of magistrates' courts, which were recently revived, meant that the judiciary was flooded with new cases, obliging a court to deal with anything from bounced checks to murders.

But he said in Tehran on 11 May that "many parts of the judiciary have undergone fundamental change, and the people must be informed of these changes," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 12 May. Magistrates courts have been revived to deal with incoming cases and ensure only serious crimes are passed to higher criminal courts. He has urged many disputes to be given to "arbitration councils and pseudo-judicial bodies" to prevent them from clogging the judicial system. He said in Tehran on 11 May that while judges in India reportedly deal with 10 cases a month, "in our country the figure is 700," according to "Aftab-i Yazd." The paper cited him as saying that he wants to see Iranian judges deal with "one case a day. Because naturally when they throw a mass of cases at the judiciary the judge is forced to sign with his eyes shut, and that is a cause of corruption."

Hashemi-Shahrudi will reportedly also penalize bad judges. According to the first deputy head of the judiciary, Hojatoleslam Hadi Marvi, Hashemi-Shahrudi has sent to "deprived areas," or some of Iran's less accessible and underdeveloped regions, several judges for "procrastinating and failing to deal [with cases] suitably and with precision," "Kayhan" reported on 2 May. "The judiciary is serious in dealing with any offense and we will give a firm and legal response to anyone dealing with people incorrectly, and remove offending judges," "Keyhan" quoted Marvi as saying.

And there are his weekly meetings with the public, where he uses his authority to pardon convicts or force courts to review sentences. He has urged provincial judiciary chiefs to also meet with people and take a personal interest in the province's more important judicial cases. Hashemi-Shahrudi has also sent out an inspection team to check prisons. "This committee has begun its work and we shall make public its first report," ISNA cited Hadi Husseini, the head of the judiciary complaints department, as saying on 13 May. "The committee will examine all items existing in prisons, including the problems of prisoners, and issues with guards and prison officials," he said.

In a year that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declared the "Year of Accountability" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 March 2004), Ayatollah Hashemi-Shahrudi added in Tehran on 12 May that "the other two branches have talked more about reforms, but the judiciary has carried them out," ISNA reported. His initiatives may be termed part of the conservative version of reforms, an attempt to make "Islamic justice" work and show that reforms mean the same system working better, not a change of the system.

But the alacrity with which parliament ratified Hashemi-Shahrudi's bill indicates that reformers, too, are principally interested in results -- greater personal security and a stricter application of the rule of law -- and happy for conservative bodies to deliver the same goods, whatever their name. But they have shown skepticism over the efficacy of internal supervisory mechanisms; hence their emphasis on mutual supervision by government branches and popular supervision of state institutions through parliament, and its Article 90 Committee, charged with investigating public bodies' abuse of individual rights.

Copyright (c) 2004 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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