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Iran Reformers Allege Rigging
Call the election process a 'sham'

By Mohamad Bazzi

February 18, 2004

Tehran, Iran - In the most daring challenge to Iran's ruling clerics in years, dozens of reformist lawmakers yesterday accused the country's supreme leader of rigging upcoming elections to allow his conservative supporters to gain control of parliament.

The reformers blamed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for presiding over a system they said has "trampled" democratic rights and strayed from the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought clerics to power in Iran. The lawmakers outlined their charges in a letter to Khamenei, in an unprecedented public criticism of a man who wields ultimate political and spiritual authority.


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In recent years, reformers who made milder criticisms of Khamenei ended up in jail. But yesterday's letter suggests that the boundaries of political dissent in Iran might shift permanently after last month's disqualification of more than 2,400 pro-reform candidates from Friday's parliamentary elections. The candidates, including 80 current legislators, were banned by the Guardian Council, whose 12 members answer directly to Khamenei.

"The popular revolution brought freedom and independence for the country in the name of Islam. But now you lead a system in which legitimate freedoms and the rights of the people are being trampled in the name of Islam," lawmakers said in the letter, which was sent to Khamenei on Monday and made public yesterday.

The letter was not signed, but it spoke in the name of "protesting legislators." Parliamentary officials said more than 100 legislators backed the letter, including deputy speaker Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of President Mohammad Khatami.

There was no immediate reaction from Khamenei or other senior members of the non-elected clerical leadership.

The mass exclusion of candidates has plunged Iran into one of its most serious crises since the 1979 revolution. With the best-known reformers banned, conservatives are expected to sweep the elections and retake control of the 290-seat parliament. Liberals won control of the legislature in a landslide victory four years ago, but have been prevented from enacting major social and political reforms.

"Institutions under your supervision - after four years of humiliating the elected parliament and thwarting [reform] bills - have now deprived the people of the most basic right: the right to choose and be chosen," legislators said in the letter to Khamenei.

Reformers have urged Iranians to boycott the elections, saying a low turnout will expose the process as a "sham" and hand the conservatives a hollow victory.

In the last parliamentary elections in 2000, voter turnout was 67 percent. In Friday's balloting, reformers expect a nationwide turnout below 50 percent and participation in major cities - where the majority of liberal candidates were disqualified - to be as low as 20 percent.

In a sermon last week, Khamenei called for a massive voter turnout to give "the enemies of the Islamic system a slap in the face." Khamenei and other Iranian officials routinely refer to the United States and Israel as enemies plotting against Iran.

Khatami, the reformist president who failed to have the disqualifications overturned, appealed to Iranians on Monday to cast their ballots despite "some unfairness" to prevent hard-liners from seizing control of parliament. But the ban has split the reform movement, with many of Khatami's allies calling for a boycott.

About 5,600 candidates were allowed to remain on the ballot. The council has the power to veto legislation and candidates based on loosely defined Islamic and legal grounds.

The banning of candidates has failed to ignite interest in the election among ordinary Iranians, who are disenchanted with politics after seven years of largely unfulfilled promises of reform under Khatami's government.

Reformers vow to continue their efforts. "The Iranian people still want democracy," said Mohsen Mirdamadi, a reformist legislator barred from seeking re-election.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.


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