By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 9, 2009
TEHRAN, Aug. 8 -- A second group of dissidents, demonstrators and embassy workers appeared in court Saturday as prosecutors pressed their case against opposition members accused of plotting to topple Iran's religious leadership.
More than 100 defendants were put on trial Saturday, a week after a similar hearing involving other groups of politicians, journalists and protesters. State television showed several pro-opposition politicians and demonstrators in gray prison uniforms sitting in the dock, guarded by police officers.
Outside the courthouse, brief skirmishes broke out between police and family members of the accused.
Most of the 40-page indictment focused on what prosecutors said was an attempt by Western nations -- particularly the United States and Britain -- to inspire a "velvet revolution" in the turmoil surrounding Iran's presidential election in June.
Even before the voting, Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps had accused two candidates opposing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of plotting a nonmilitary overthrow modeled after the popular uprisings that toppled governments in Georgia and Ukraine. The guards are widely thought to be behind the arrests and court case, which is playing out in Iranian state media.
"The U.S. is swamped in Iraq and Afghanistan. The possibility to use the military option against the Islamic Republic of Iran has reached its lowest level, so creating basic changes in the structure of Iran's system required covert and soft actions by the West," Iran's deputy prosecutor said, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency.
People gathered outside the court said government supporters were bused in to fill the few places made available in court to the public.
"None of the family members could get in," said Mahdieh Mohammadi, the wife of Ahmad Zeidabadi, a journalist and critic of the government who was arrested nearly two months ago.
"About 50 women and children waited for hours in the hot sun. Suddenly the police showed up, telling us to leave. But we stayed, and they arrested some of us," she said in a telephone interview.
The prosecutor presented what he said was evidence of a well-planned plot to overthrow Iran's system of religious leadership, building on a theory one of his colleagues had introduced last week.
The prosecutor said social network sites such as Facebook, which has a Farsi version, and Twitter, which postponed maintenance throughout the protests, as well as a recent trial version of a Google Farsi translation program, were part of "beastly efforts" to create a wedge between the Iranian people and their government.
Iranian authorities have filtered Facebook and Twitter since shortly after the election.
Prosecutors said the United States has used exchange programs for artists and academics, support for terrorist groups and a monitoring post based in the U.S. mission in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in its efforts to bring about the velvet revolution.
During the Bush administration, Iran "listening posts" were set up in the Emirates, Turkey and other countries and were manned by Farsi-speaking Iran experts from the State Department.
To support their allegations, Iranian officials often point to a $400 million budget for covert operations passed by Congress in 2008.
Britain "became active as the information arm of the United States and Israel in order to fill the gap of them not being present in Iran," the prosecutor said.
The defendants Saturday included Hossein Rassam, an Iranian employee at the British Embassy who was charged with espionage.
"We gathered information and news so that the British government would have a better understanding of Iran to adopt and implement its policies," Rassam said in a speech broadcast live on state television. He was allowed to return home after the session.
Britain expressed outrage at the charge against Rassam, saying it "directly contradicts assurances we had been given repeatedly by senior Iranian officials," the Associated Press reported.
French national Clotilde Reiss, who was arrested at the airport in Tehran after participating in rallies, issued a short statement asking for clemency, Fars reported.
"I have written a one-page report and submitted it to an official at the cultural department of the French Embassy who was not a diplomat," she was quoted as saying in fluent Farsi. "I should not have taken part in illegal protests. . . . I regret my activities and I apologize to the Iranian nation and the court. I hope they will pardon me."
In a sign that members of Iran's judiciary might be divided over the court case, national prosecutor general Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi said the judiciary had called for the release of Saeed Hajjarian, a supporter of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi who became disabled after an assassination attempt in 2000.
"Following a visit last week by our brothers to Hajjarian, his condition was relatively good, but we still advise that he be kept in his own house," Dori-Najafabadi said, according to Fars.
Others have been more straightforward.
"This court is unacceptable," said Saleh Nikbakht, a lawyer defending former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi and Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, whose alleged confession was televised last week.
Nikbakht said he has not been allowed to meet with his clients or see their files.
"Holding sessions without the presence of the accused's lawyer and also before the investigation process has been completed is illegal," Nikbakht said. "I don't know how many more sessions there will be. Anything seems possible at this point."