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Iran. August 15, 2009

Iran Tries to Suppress Rape Allegations

Original source

The New York Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Iran's clerical leadership on Friday stepped up a campaign to silence opposition claims that protesters had been raped in prison, with prayer leaders in at least three major cities denouncing the accusations and their chief sponsor.

The accusations of rape - usually a taboo subject in Iran - have multiplied and provoked strong reactions in the days since a reformist cleric and presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, broached the subject last weekend. His allegations added fuel to an already volatile debate about prison abuse in the wake of Iran's disputed June 12 election.

Also on Friday, a group of reformist former lawmakers issued an extraordinary statement on opposition Web sites in which they denounced the government's harsh tactics and appealed to a powerful state body to investigate the qualifications of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although it was not clear who had endorsed the statement, or even if all of the lawmakers were in the country, it appeared to be the most direct challenge to the supreme leader's authority yet in the unrest following the election.

With a renewed volley of opposition accusations in the air, a fundamentalist cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, called Mr. Karroubi's claims of prison rape a "total slander against the Islamic system" and demanded in a sermon at Tehran University on Friday that Mr. Karroubi be prosecuted. "We expect the Islamic system to show an appropriate response to this," he said. Prayer leaders in Qum and Mashad delivered similar diatribes. Friday Prayer sermons usually reflect talking points given out by the office of Ayatollah Khamenei.

The speaker of Iran's Parliament, Ali Larijani, had already dismissed Mr. Karroubi's claims as "sheer lies" this week, saying an inquiry ordered days earlier had found no evidence that protesters detained in the demonstrations that followed the election had been raped.

Even before the rape claims emerged, hard-line political figures and clerics had been calling for the arrest of Mr. Karroubi, along with the leader of the opposition, Mir Hussein Moussavi, and former President Mohammad Khatami. In the course of a mass trial of reformists that began earlier this month, prosecutors have accused all three men of being linked to a conspiracy to topple Iran's government through a "velvet revolution."

But Mr. Karroubi appeared to be undaunted, and he pressed ahead with more claims of jailhouse sexual abuse in a statement posted on his party's Web site late Thursday. He said he had received testimony from former prisoners that they had seen other detainees "forced to go naked, crawling on their hands and knees like animals, with prison guards riding on their backs." Others told of watching as fellow prisoners guilty only of marching and chanting slogans were beaten to death, Mr. Karroubi said.

"Insults and criticism won't make me silent," Mr. Karroubi said, after dismissing Mr. Larijani's quick investigation of the abuse claims as meaningless. "I'll defend the rights of the people as long as I live and you can't stop my hand, tongue and pen."

The statement by the reformist former lawmakers appeared to be the strongest public attack yet on Ayatollah Khamenei. Long unquestioned, Ayatollah Khamenei's status as a neutral arbiter and Islamic symbol has suffered since he prematurely blessed the election that many Iranians believe was rigged. In recent weeks, some protesters have begun chanting "death to Khamenei" - a phrase that was almost unimaginable before - and the same words have appeared in graffiti on buildings in Tehran.

The authors of the statement made their appeal to the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that has the power to appoint the supreme leader and, in theory, to dismiss him. The statement is unlikely to have much impact beyond angering conservatives, who control many seats in the 86-member Assembly.

The former lawmakers praised Mr. Karroubi for publicizing the rape accusations and angrily dismissed the mass trial of reformists now under way as a Stalinesque show trial. They also echoed opposition complaints about the brutality of the crackdown that followed the protests.

A day before the statement appeared, one member of the Assembly of Experts, Ali Mohammad Dastgheib, wrote his own letter calling for the group to hold an emergency meeting, opposition Web sites reported.

"I am calling honestly and for the benefit of the country that the Assembly of Experts should convene an open meeting and look into people's complaints, as well as those of Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi," Mr. Dastgheib wrote.