US & World

Crackdown On Opposition Appears Under Way In Iran

This week, Tehran executed five people and meted out a harsh sentence to a Western journalist. Analysts say the moves appear to be an attempt to intimidate the political opposition ahead of the anniversary of last June's disputed presidential election.

The government of Iran is refusing to return the dead bodies of five young people to their families for burial. All five were hanged on Sunday in notorious Evin prison in Tehran.

The hangings appear to have been rushed through Iran's legal system, in order to intimidate the political opposition as it plans its next challenges to the government.

Four of the five executed were ethnic Kurds, and their families wanted to take the bodies back to Iranian Kurdistan for burial. But the authorities in Tehran refused, apparently concerned that the funerals would turn into opportunities for protest.

The five, one of whom was a woman, were sentenced to death two years ago, charged with association with terrorist organizations, although by most accounts no solid evidence was offered at their very short trials.

The hangings on Sunday came as a surprise. Neither their families nor their lawyers were informed in advance.

The five have had nothing to do with the Green Movement in Iran, the opposition movement that burst into the streets after the disputed presidential election held last year on June 12.

But many observers and analysts, such as Stanford University's Abbas Milani, believe the hangings are meant to intimidate the opposition.

"The regime is clearly trying to send a very, very strong message to the opposition, to the Green Movement, that it is going to deal very harshly with the prospects of a demonstration on the anniversary of the June election," Milani says.

Also this week, a court in Tehran sentenced Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari in absentia to 13 years in prison and 74 lashes. Last year, Iranian authorities jailed Bahari for more than four months, charged with conspiring against the state. He was released on bail in October and now lives in London.

His case, too, appears to be part of an expanding campaign to intimidate the opposition.

In response, leaders of the opposition have spoken out. In a statement posted on an opposition website, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who many in Iran believe was the real winner of the election last June, condemned the hangings as unjust.

His stance provoked a harsh reaction from some senior officials, which Milani characterizes as "ferocious attacks" for "in the regime's words, supporting terrorists."

Among the charges leveled at Mousavi recently was that he had turned not just anti-government but anti-Iranian, and that he is a mohareb, or enemy of God.

That is a dangerous charge in Iran, says Muhammad Sahimi, who writes for the website Tehran Bureau.

"Once a high official of the government speaks like that, even if he really doesn't mean it, that's just a signal to more extremist groups that are not really controlled by a central authority to take action in their own hands and try assassination, and this has happened in the past," Sahimi says.

Although large demonstrations have subsided in recent months, the government still may have reason to be concerned about the June 12 anniversary of the disputed election.

On Monday, hundreds of students -- perhaps as many as 1,000 -- held a spontaneous demonstration at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. They were protesting an appearance by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They poured out into the streets chanting "freedom, freedom" and were met with a hastily organized contingent of police.

Video believed to be from the demonstration has been posted on YouTube and circulated widely.

And this is not the only time that students have protested appearances by Ahmadinejad, according to Sahimi.

"Wherever he goes, there are demonstrations against him that accuse him of lying and being a dictator. So any opportunity that people get, there are demonstrations, which is why a lot of people believe the Green Movement is alive and well. It's just reassessing its tactics," he says.

In some cities in Iran's Kurdistan province, shops and businesses remained shuttered this week in silent protest of the executions. And the hangings have only increased the talk about the prospects of demonstrations on June 12.

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