Leading cleric defies Tehran on confessions

By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran FT.COM
Published: December 29 2010 19:16 | Last updated: December 29 2010 19:16

In a rare public challenge to the Iranian regime, the country’s highest-ranking cleric has warned that prisoners’ confessions are invalid, signalling a deepening gulf between the political establishment in Tehran and clerical establishment in the holy city of Qom.

“Confessions of prisoners have no validity and if a judge uses confessions for issuing verdicts that judge is no longer qualified,” Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid Khorasani told students this week, according to domestic websites including Parlemannews, which is run by reformist parliamentarians.

His statement is not only a religious decree that his followers must obey but a warning from the country’s most senior cleric to politicians that Qom’s religious establishment should not be ignored.

The decree also challenges the position of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who accepts the confessions of prisoners about their own acts – not those of others – as evidence during trial proceedings.

However, it was not immediately clear whether the comments of Ayatollah Khorasani, whose son-in-law is the head of judiciary, would have an influence on any verdicts.

Hundreds of politicians, journalists, university students and human rights activists have been in jail since disputed elections in June 2009. Some have appeared on state television “confessing” their opposition to the regime.

Western human rights organisations have condemned the imprisonments and what they say are forced confessions, adding to mounting international pressure on Tehran over its poor human rights record.

International outrage has focused on the sentence of stoning to death of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who is charged with adultery. She confessed on Iran state television that she had affairs while married and the regime cited her confession when defending her sentence, although it has hinted it may be commuted to death by hanging.

Although he did not refer to Ms Ashtiani in his statement, Ayatollah Khorasani based his opposition to confessions on the example of a woman facing a similar charge during the rule of the second caliph in the seventh century. He said Ali, the first Shia Imam and the prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, saved her from stoning on the grounds that her confession of adultery was made under pressure and so had no validity.

Ayatollah Khamenei has visited Qom four times in less than two months in a bid to bridge the differences between clerics and senior politicians.

However, Ayatollah Khorasani reportedly refused to meet him. Instead, last week he met families of political prisoners in what is seen as a sign of sympathy with the opposition Green Movement – a reversal of his usual position of distancing himself from politics.

Analysts believe the growing differences between the Qom-based clerical establishment, largely comprised of conservative clerics, and the regime in Tehran began after Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad swept to power in 2005 and intensified after the post-election unrest last year.

The fundamentalist president, who is backed by Ayatollah Khamenei, promotes a radical interpretation of Shia Islam while some senior figures in the government comment on religious issues, considered by clerics as their domain.

Also, close allies of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad have recently adopted an ultra-nationalist language which clerics see as prioritising Iranian nationality over Islam.