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 Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 00:30 GMT
Iranian killers spared death penalty
The trial has been conducted behind closed doors
The military trial was widely dismissed as a sham
The Iranian Supreme Court has commuted the death sentences of at least two former secret agents found guilty of the murders of four dissidents in 1998.

President Khatami
The murders typified the struggle between Khatami and the hardliners
Mostafa Kazemi and Mehrdad Alikhani - both former senior intelligence officials - were instead sentenced to life in prison for ordering the murders of Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar, Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh.

It is unclear whether a third man's death sentence has been commuted.

Two agents accused of carrying out the actual murders were sentenced to 10 years each in prison.

Seven others were given prison terms from two-and-a-half to 10 years for their roles in the murders, with four or five more apparently acquitted, the Associated Press news agency reported.

'Sham trial'

All had originally been found guilty by an Iranian military court in 2001 - in a trial that was dismissed as a sham by the victims' families and international human rights organisations.

Pro-reform demonstration
The case came to symbolise the reformists' struggle

However in August last year the Supreme Court quashed some of the verdicts and called for a re-examination of the case.

The court said the sentences had been commuted as the families of the victims had forgiven the killers, Iranian news agency IRNA reported.

Dariush Forouhar and his wife, Parvaneh, had run a small political opposition party when they were found stabbed to death 22 November 1988.

Writers Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh and Mohammad Mokhtari were kidnapped weeks later.

Their bodies were eventually found on the outskirts of the capital, Tehran. They had apparently been strangled.

The murders of the four dissident writers and intellectuals were widely blamed on rogue elements from within the Iranian Information Ministry keen to destabilise Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's reformist regime.

Scandal

But they also highlighted the continuing struggle between Mr Khatami and Iranian hardliners, who control the judiciary and who reformists accuse of ultimately ordering the murders.

Many, including the families of those killed, suspected that those convicted of the killings were merely scapegoats acting on orders from high within the ministry.

Iran's hardliners in turn accused foreign powers, including Israel, of committing the crimes.

But the revelation in 1999 that intelligence officials had been involved in the murders caused a huge scandal and led to a ministerial resignation.

See also:

06 Feb 02 | Middle East
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