Yasaman Baji - Tehran
The publication of a letter by presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi alleging torture and rape in Iran's prisons has shocked the country, where many thought the state was above such behaviour.
He made graphic charges about the treatment of young men and women detained in demonstrations after the June election and held in Kahrizak prison, shaking traditional and religious layers of society loyal to the state.
The reverberations from Karrubi's letter to the chair of the Expediency Council and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which was published on August 9, went right up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Some of those who voted for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June and who rejected allegations of vote rigging, branding demonstrators rioters and agitators, were also shocked.
The speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, denied the allegations made by Karrubi. "On the basis of precise and comprehensive investigations conducted about the detainees at Kahrizak and Evin prisons, no cases of rape and sexual abuse were found," the official state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
The gravity of the allegations, the apparent inability of government officials to deal with them in a manner that satisfied public concern, and the silence of Khamenei for more than two months worried believers.
One of them is a 65-year man who lost a son in the Iran-Iraq war, was an election monitor, and is a respected elder of his community.
"Now the individuals we voted for are violating people's honour. I can no longer raise my head at home and am ashamed in front of my wife and children who I encouraged to vote for Ahmadinejad," he said.
"My wife has been crying since she heard about the issue of rape and torture, cursing the government and people who committed such crimes against the youth."
A 48-year-old taxi driver, a war veteran who says he once supported Khamenei, is also critical, "There is no way the leader does not know about these crimes. If he doesn't know, then he is not a leader and if he knows and says nothing this means that he has ordered them himself."
He knows a woman whose son has been missing for two months, "The weeping of the mother who pleads with me, because I have some friends in the Sepah [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], to bring some news about her son has become my family's nightmare."
It may have been this kind of sentiment among the people that led Khamenei to soften his tone in an address to group of students on August 26, two months after widespread reports of an attack on students in their dormitory at the University of Tehran.
"I do not accuse the leaders of the recent incidents of being affiliated with foreign countries, including the US and Britain, since the issue has not been proven for me," Khamenei was quoted as saying by Iranian news services. "But there is no doubt that the events were planned, no matter whether their leaders knew it or not."
Khamenei also insisted that the crimes committed by Iran's security establishment were less serious than the crimes of those who undermined the reputation of the Islamic Republic by doubting the election results and encouraging protests.
According to a prominent historian and a retired university professor, Khamenei is faced with a dilemma because some of his critics, including former president Rafsanjani, were instrumental in Khamenei's elevation to the position of leader.
"Khamenei has never had sufficient credibility among the political and religious elite and would have never become the leader without Rafsanjani's support," he said.
Saying that Khamenei's authority is more "force than people-centred", the prominent historian argued that Khamenei is vulnerable to the same charges that are now being laid against other leading revolutionaries.
"If Mussavi, Karrubi, and Rafsanjani can be foreign agents, what guarantees are there that he is not?"
Recent events and his inability to manage them have led many of Khamenei's one-time supporters to lose trust in him. On the other hand, critics, who nevertheless gave him some room to act as an "unbiased mediator" above the political fray, are no longer willing to acknowledge his legal or political authority.
Karrubi's letter may have reduced support for Khamenei in the short term, but in the longer term, many Iranians hope that his intervention may be the country's salvation by showing that at least some people are ready to take a stand against wrongdoing and violation of individuals' rights and address people's ethical and moral concerns.
Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tehran
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