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Iran Trials Not Having Desired Effect

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Show trial is the phrase most often used by critics to describe what's been going on since early August in Tehran. More than 100 opposition figures have been accused of working with foreign powers to undermine Iran. Many of them have been forced to confess on television to alleged crimes and connections with the U.S., Britain and Israel. But this trial may not be having the desired effect, as NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: There is no evidence, no direct and cross examination, no judge to sort out disagreements. More than anything, it resembles the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s in Moscow, which resulted in a large number of executions.

But some analysts see this as more theater than trial. The audience being those inside and outside Iran who support the government and President Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election, says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (Iran Specialist, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Basically to reassure them that what transpired over the last two months in Iran in terms of this popular uprising was orchestrated by imperial powers intent on fomenting unrest in Iran, and basically to discredit any type of opposition to the government, as orchestrated by imperial powers.

SHUSTER: But the trial is not having its intended effect, says Ervand Abrahamian, a professor of history at the City University of New York. Abrahamian has written a book, "Tortured Confessions," about show trials and forced confessions in the Islamic republic.

Professor ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN (History Department, City University of New York): People ridicule, in fact, the confessions. And they feel sorry for the people making the confessions and blame the government for using force to get people to go in front of the cameras.

SHUSTER: Early in the process, government prosecutors read from lengthy indictments intended to link the protesters to activities fomented allegedly by the CIA. One of those charges involved the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a well-known Iranian American scholar, Abbas Milani. But, says Milani, the prosecution couldn't spell Hoover's name correctly.

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director, Iranian Studies Program, Stanford University): They don't have the wisdom to even look up the name of the institution that in their mind is so colossally responsible for this revolution. And all they had to do is look up the Internet and Hoover would have remained Hoover, rather than becoming Hoofer.

SHUSTER: It has even become a crime to criticize the trial. The laws used to prosecute the opposition include: spreading corruption on earth and fighting the security of the Islamic republic, says Milani.

Professor MILANI: These are the type of totalitarian definitions of crime that are intended to be ambiguous, intended to be implemented in a random manner for absolute maximum usefulness.

SHUSTER: Yet they have not proved useful, and even some at the highest levels of government seemed to have realized it. Just this week, the government appears to have conceded that at least one young man was beaten to death in prison after he was detained during this summer's protests.

And a few days ago, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated he had seen no evidence that leaders of the opposition conspired with foreign powers. That has effectively nullified the confessions the accused have read, says Ervand Abrahamian.

Professor ABRAHAMIAN: Once that link is not there, then the recantations really have no meaning because what the point of the recantations was to say that, yes, they were tools of the foreign powers who were trying to overthrow the regime.

SHUSTER: This summer's political turmoil in Iran has opened up sharp divisions in Iranian society, and those political fissures have affected even those who make up Iran's ruling elite. The trial of the opposition has aggravated those divisions, says, Abrahamian.

Prof. ABRAHAMIAN: Some of the people in the Ministry of Information or Intelligence actually were against the show trials because I think they realize that this creates a backlash.

SHUSTER: But backlash or not, this trial continues and a few senior political and religious leaders have hinted some of the defendants could face the death penalty.

Mike Shuster, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.