Who killed five journalists in Iran?

Five journalists were killed in Iran between November 1998 and February 1999.

The Iranian authorities announced that "rogue elements" in the security services had carried out the killings, and some Ministry of Information employees were tried in secret for the murders. The trial was condemned as a sham by the victims' families, their lawyer (who was arrested on the eve of the trial) and human rights and journalists' organisations internationally.

Now copies of videotapes have come into the NUJ's possession that appear to show these "rogue elements" being beaten and mistreated, and then confessing to fantastic "crimes" including working for foreign intelligence agencies, blasphemy, adultery etc.

On 21 January 2002 the National Union of Journalists released those videos at a press conference and, in co-operation with Indymedia, on the world-wide web. The videos came to the NUJ from the International Tribunal on Crimes against Humanity in Iran, a human rights campaigning group based in Germany.

So, if the trials were, as the videos appear to show, based on ridiculous and coerced confessions - who was responsible for the murders?

There have been a number of developments in Iran since the video was released.

  • There were arrests of security service personnel the same week.
  • A monthly journal Bayan on its cover has title: "The film that shook the nation" referring to the video.
  • The lawyer of two of the families of victims of serial political murders Nasser Zarafshan has been given a 5 year prison sentence, plus 70 lashes, for "giving away state secrets". This case wasn't strictly connected with the video - his case has been going on for a while. He was also covicted of posession of alcohol and of a gun. He says security forces planted these in his office.

Below is the background to the killings and subsequent "confessions".

Serial murders of writers and journalists in Iran

1 The drama began in November 1998, when secular opposition leader Dariush Foruhar and his wife, Parvaneh, were stabbed to death in their Tehran apartment. Within weeks, three leading journalists-writers outspoken in their demands for greater freedom of expression in Iran - Majid Sharif, Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Pouyandeh - were also found murdered.
2 Early in 1999, authorities announced that a circle of "rogue" intelligence agents had carried out the killings, but without the knowledge of top intelligence ministry officials. Then, in June 1999, the agent named as the mastermind behind the assassinations, Saeed Emami, was reported to have killed himself in prison by drinking a bottle of hair remover. Defendant Ali Rowshani admitted murdering Mokhtari and Pouyandeh. But he said he had done so under orders from Mostafa Kazemi, a former head of internal security at the intelligence ministry and another man, Merhdad Alikhani. Another pair of defendants admitted killing the Forouhars, a husband and wife found dead at home from multiple stab wounds. They too said they had received orders from Kazemi and Alikhani. Another man said he had assisted in the murder. Kazemi was reported telling the court on Saturday he had been the mastermind behind the killings, while Alikhani said the decision was taken "collectively."
3 Amid the firestorm of controversy and public outrage, journalist Akbar Ganji published a book and a series of articles alleging former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was linked to the murders. Two pro-reform journalists and a former interior minister said the real number of those killed was as high as 80, with murders and mysterious disappearances stretching over a decade. They say that senior clerics conspired with high-ranking intelligence officials to carry out the murders. The two journalists and former minister are now in jail.
4 In early December 2000 a lawyer for the families of Mokhtari and Pouyandeh, Nasser Zarafshan, was jailed after claiming other people had also been killed and that the assassinations had been ordered by religious decree.
5 No photos of the agents of the Ministry of Intelligence tried in Dec 2000-Jan 2001 were published, their identity remained a "state secret". Most Iranians are convinced their "confessions" are part of a deal to allow them freedom after the trials, irrespective of the verdict.
6 The trial was held in secret and the security forces' official report is the only reporting of the proceedings.
7 One of the accused, Kazemi, who claimed last week to have ordered the killings, has previously maintained that the orders came from Dorri Najaf Abadi, Iran's minister of intelligence at the time of the murders.
8 Iran's supreme leader had claimed on a number of occasions that these murders were acts of sabotage by foreign powers and that the "rogue agents" were working for US and Israeli Intelligence, yet the court never took up this claim.
9 On the 5th of January 2002, the chair of the "Parliamentary Commission" on National Security hinted that the special squad responsible for serial political murders in Iran has been reorganised and is starting its activity again. Mohsen Mirdadmadi, a leading member of the coalition supporting Khatami referred to the disappearance of journalist Siamak Pourzand and a young cleric kidnapped in Ghom.
10 On Sunday the 13th Jan 2002 the MP for Tabriz, Akbar Aalami, informed fellow MPs that a young cleric Nazem Zadeh ( son of a well known cleric) was kidnapped in Ghom, he was tortured for 6 days and told to confess receiving money from Foreign Radio stations (including the BBC) to act as a contact with Ayatollah Montazeri. Nazem Zadeh was then left semi conscious in Tehran. Mr Aalami implied involvement of sections of the security forces in this kidnapping.
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