Iran Amok

For Iran, the Man Is the Message

NYTimes: Published: June 29, 2006

Beirut, Lebanon

LAST week Iranians woke up to a startling piece of news: their government had dispatched Tehran’s notorious prosecutor general, Saeed Mortazavi, to Geneva as a member of Iran’s delegation to the opening session of the new United Nations Human Rights Council.

Iranians weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Mr. Mortazavi is one of the country’s highest profile rights violators. Human Rights Watch urged Iran to remove him at once and asked other governments not to meet the Iranian delegation while Mr. Mortazavi remained a part of it.

Well-known and widely despised in Iran, Mr. Mortazavi personifies most of the ills affecting Iran’s judicial system: lack of accountability, rampant impunity, disregard for fundamental constitutional rights, manipulation of the law to promote a political agenda, systematic use of torture, and above all, abuse of judicial powers to repress peaceful expressions of dissent and criticism.

Iranians refer to Mr. Mortazavi as “the butcher of the press.” In 2000, Mr. Mortazavi, then a judge, closed more than a dozen newspapers in one month alone, invoking an obscure law from the 1950’s on “ensuring public safety.” The law was originally enacted to keep criminal gangs from intimidating members of the public. Since then he has shut more than 100 newspapers and journals.

I was watching Bill Moyers interview Salman Rushdie recently on PBS. The brilliant author of The Satanic Verses opined that those who refused to publish the Danish cartoons did so out of cowardice. I think a case could be made that, given the current political situation, running the toons could be likened to yelling Fire! in a crowded theater.

Then again… I am reminded that my ancient druidic ancestors kept the kings of early Ireland in check by threatening them with satire–on the theory that it is difficult to maintain power when everyone is laughing their asses off at you.

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