Page last updated at 00:37 GMT, Thursday, 27 August 2009 01:37 UK

Iran 'show trials' make sorry spectacle

General courtroom view
On trial in Tehran are not just 100 individuals, but the reform movement itself

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

It was, as it was surely intended to be, a grim spectacle.

Iranian state television showed the defendants - sitting in rows in a courtroom in Tehran, dressed in pyjama-like prison uniforms - as they confessed to taking part in a plot to undermine the Islamic Republic.

They included some of the country's most prominent reformist intellectuals. Many looked tired and nervous in front of the cameras.

It was the latest of Iran's mass trials. In all, more than 100 people stand accused of provoking unrest after the disputed presidential elections in June.

'Maximum punishment'

One of the best known of those in the dock, Saeed Hajjarian, is so severely disabled his "confession" had to be read by another defendant.

Saeed Hajjarian
Hajjarian is too severely disabled to be able to read his own confession

"I committed big errors through my inaccurate analyses of the recent elections," the statement read, "and I apologise to the Iranian nation."

A former intelligence official, Mr Hajjarian survived an assassination attempt in 2000, when a gunman shot him in the head at point-blank range.

Since then, he has become an outspoken critic of the regime and one of the main ideologues of the reform movement.

According to the official Iranian news agency, he is charged with "acting against national security… spreading suspicion of vote-rigging… and provoking illegal protests".

One of the prosecutors has demanded that he receive the maximum punishment, which in such cases could mean a death sentence.

The former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami - himself a leading figure within the reform movement - has condemned the confessions heard in court as invalid.

He is far from alone in his reaction.

Many Iranians - as well as lawyers and human-rights activists abroad - believe these are Soviet-style show trials.

Crushing the reformists

The regime is sending a clear message.

On trial are not merely prominent individuals but the reform movement itself.

Former President Khatami and losing candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi
Arresting and trying Mr Khatami and Mr Mousavi would be a risky strategy

Prosecutors have called for two of the main reformist parties - the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Islamic Revolution Mujahidin Organisation - to be outlawed.

Both flourished during the Khatami presidency (1997-2005) when, for a while, it seemed the reformist trend was unstoppable.

If these two parties are shut down, that will send an unmistakable message to the newest incarnation of reform in Iran - the Green movement that emerged to protest at the 12 June elections.

The movement, which has former President Khatami's support, is led by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main opposition candidate in the elections.

Arresting and putting on trial Mr Khatami and Mr Mousavi - as some hard-liners are demanding - would be a far riskier strategy than anything the regime has done so far.

But it is signalling that if the Green movement persists with its protests, it too will be crushed.

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