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Sunday, 14 January, 2001, 00:01 GMT
Analysis: Backlash gathers pace
Iranian conservatives
Hardline conservatives have hit back in recent months
By Jim Muir in Tehran

The harsh sentences passed on Saturday on seven key pro-reform figures represent another major blow to the Iranian reformist movement and President Mohammad Khatami.

It was the latest manifestation of a hard-line backlash that has been stepped up in recent weeks, as Mr Khatami ponders whether to run for a second term of office in June elections.

As long ago as last July, he signalled that he would.

Now, there are strong signs that he is having second thoughts, with the Berlin verdicts likely to do little to dispel his doubts.

The jail terms were harsher than expected, and see seven more of Mr Khatami's leading supporters condemned to lengthy periods behind bars.

Heavy sentences

It came as no surprise that the severest judgement was meted out to Akbar Ganji.

Akbar Ganji
Akbar Ganji is one of Iran's leading investigative journalists
The campaigning journalist made many powerful enemies through his relentless exposure of high-level involvement in the murders of dissident Iranian intellectuals, and even named some of the alleged culprits in court.

Mr Ganji was given prison sentences totalling 10 years, to be followed by a further five years in internal exile at Bashargad, a remote desert area.

Two other defendants were given similar long jail sentences. Khalil Rostamkhani, a translator, was given a total of nine years - eight of them on charges of "moharebeh", or making war against the Islamic system.

He faces nearly a decade of separation from his wife and 11-year-old son.

Also facing the "moharebeh" charge was Saeed Sadr, an interpreter who worked at the German embassy in Tehran. He was dealt a 10-year sentence.

European concern

Mr Sadr's prosecution, and the fact that the conference had been held in Berlin under the partial auspices of the Green Party, made the case of special concern to the German government.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
Gerhard Schroeder has reportedly cancelled his trip to Tehran
Berlin is reported to have quietly dropped the idea of a planned spring visit to Tehran by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Iran-based diplomats have been watching the Berlin case closely, alarmed at the prospect of heavy sentences for activities which in their countries would not be regarded as criminal.

A senior European diplomat in Tehran privately described the diplomatic reaction to the sentences as one of "horror".

Similar concern is bound to be expressed in the European Union's continuing dialogue with Iran, raising a question mark over the next session, planned for 13 February.

Reformers frustrated

In Iran itself, the five-year sentence passed on Ali Afshari, a prominent leader of the biggest student organisation (the Unity Consolidation Bureau) is likely to strain further the patience and restraint shown by students.

President Mohammad Khatami
President Khatami is looking increasingly embattled
Many of them want reform, and are frustrated at how little President Khatami has been able to deliver.

The harsh sentences have silenced yet another group of his most articulate supporters and damaged the country's image abroad, countering his efforts to end Iran's international isolation.

The move also comes amid signs of a broader hardening of the authorities' stance on a range of issues in recent weeks.

Hardline crackdown

Following the establishment of a new inter-departmental committee to crack down on "social vices", hundreds of fun-lovers were arrested at several parties celebrating the western New Year on 31 December.

Those detained were given severe lashings as well as fines. Unusually, most of the women were flogged by men.

They were also subjected to virginity tests, with extra punishment for failure. Many of those arrested are still being held.

Alcohol and the mingling of unmarried men and women are banned in the Islamic Republic, though such parties have been largely tolerated in recent years.

These and other actions carry the message that - in the social arena as in politics - those hoping for a new, liberal Iran will be disappointed.

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See also:

13 Jan 01 | Middle East
Iranian reformers jailed
13 Jan 01 | Middle East
Conference that created a furore
20 Apr 00 | Middle East
Court summons for Iranian reformists
04 Oct 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Iran
23 Oct 00 | Middle East
Row deepens over Iranian cleric
21 Oct 00 | Middle East
'Moderate' paper faces Iranian court
13 Aug 00 | Middle East
Iranian MPs pledge to continue reform
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