Iran Chief Judge Hints at Trials for Prison Abuse

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has nominated hard-line loyalists to his Cabinet as he seeks to tighten his grip on power in the face of unrelenting opposition over his disputed re-election. But at the same time, rivals within his conservative base are gaining strength.

That could mean further turmoil within the conservative camp, where already Ahmadinejad has faced heavy criticism. Most notably, Sadeq Larijani was sworn in Monday as the head of the judiciary. Larijani is the brother of parliament speaker Ali Larijani, seen as the most prominent conservative rival of Ahmadinejad.

During his swearing-in ceremony, Sadeq Larijani suggested he may seek to prosecute security agents accused of abusing and torturing detainees during the postelection crackdown — a move that could embarrass Ahmadinejad.

The announcement comes amid mounting anger over reports of torture and other abuse against protesters detained in the fierce crackdown that crushed the mass pro-opposition protests against Ahmadinejad's election victory. The opposition says at least 69 people were killed in the crackdown, including some who died in prison from beatings and other abuse. The opposition and some clerics have called for those who committed torture to be prosecuted.

Even some conservatives have denounced the abuse — a sign that some in the conservative camp believe the issue must be addressed to ease public anger. During his swearing in on Monday, Sadeq Larijani said, "nobody should dare ... to violate rights or security of citizens," state TV reported. "Violators will be put on trial."

So far authorities have taken no public action against any members of the security forces over abuse allegations. Instead, the judiciary has launched a major trial of those arrested in the crackdown, accusing more than 100 opposition activists and pro-reform leaders of involvement in a plot to overthrow the clerical leadership through the postelection protests. The opposition denies the charges and dismisses what it calls a "show trial."

"Now you have the judiciary and the legislative branches basically dominated by these two brothers and their factions, and this could actually be problematic for Ahmadinejad down the line," said Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist with the Washington-based RAND Corp.

Conservative allies of Ahmadinejad have frequently clashed with the maverick, populist president, accusing him of hoarding power by handing out key posts to close associates. The frictions have continued even amid the postelection crisis, when Ahmadinejad has been under siege from the pro-reform opposition, which claims he won the June 12 presidential election by fraud.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate say in Iran's politics, has strongly supported Ahmadinejad in the crisis. But Khamenei's appointment of Larijani as judiciary chief shows how the supreme leader has to balance among conservative factions and reassure all sides that Ahmadinejad will be kept in line.

"Khamenei has to keep as many factions and figures happy as possible," said Nader. "By supporting Ahmadinejad so decisively, he has alienated some of the conservatives within the system."

Ahmadinejad's nominations for his second-term Cabinet — expected to be announced Wednesday — could spark a new clash with conservatives in parliament, which must approve the lineup. The president announced several of his nominations over the weekend.

Among them, he announced he would bring back his controversial labor minister, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, who has been convicted of fraud in a copyright case. Mehrabian is a close ally of Ahmadinejad, and some lawmakers have already said they will oppose him.

Ahmadinejad is also nominating a close loyalist Haidar Moslehi as his new intelligence minister, replacing a prominent hard-liner he fired earlier this month, apparently over differences over the postelection crackdown. Ahmadinejad has purged several top figures from the ministry, reportedly because they disagreed with government claims that the opposition was attempting a "velvet revolution" to overthrow the clerical leadership in the turmoil that followed the election. Moslehi's nomination could give Ahmadinejad greater control over the ministry.

An attempt to prosecute any members of the security forces could spark political strains within the conservative camp. It could embarrass Ahmadinejad, who has strongly supported the security forces, and anger the powerful Revolutionary Guard, the elite force which led the crackdown and which is close to Ahmadinejad.

But the abuse allegations have damaged the clerical leadership, even eroding the taboo against direct criticism of the supreme leader. In recent days, two anonymous letters — one from a group of former lawmakers, another from a group a clerics at seminaries in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad — called for Khamenei to be removed from his post, in part because of abuses during the crackdown.

Meanwhile, Iran's prosecutor general ordered the closure Monday of the pro-reform newspaper Etemad-e Melli for "publishing articles against national security and public expedience." The paper had run articles on claims by prominent opposition figure Mahdi Karroubi that some detainees were raped in prison. Karroubi heads the political party that runs the newspaper.

The prosecutor gave no word on the length of the closure.

Dozens of Karroubi supporters protested the closure, chanting "death to the dictator" during a rally in central Tehran on Monday. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse the protesters, arresting at least 12, according to witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.