By Ebrahim Afshar
The murdered bodies of two active members of the Iranian Writers Association(IWA) were found on the outskirts of Tehran in December. Later, it was disclosed that the two, who were kidnapped a week apart, were immediately strangled on capture.
Mohammad Mokhtari, 56, a prominent writer and poet, and Jafar Pouyandeh, 46, translator, are the latest victims of a series of killings of dissidents in which five secular intellectuals have been murdered and one has disappeared.
Dariush Foruhar 70, an outspoken opposition leader and his wife, 55, were stabbed to death in their home in late November. Mohammad Sharif, a sociologist who voluntarily returned from exile, was found dead on the street a week earlier. Pirooz Davani, a movie critic and a close colleague of Foruhar, has been missing for several months.
The killing of Mokhtari and Pouyandeh heightened revulsion to an unprecedented level: it was the first time that writers (and not political figures) were confirmed as murdered for political reasons.
In a communiqué published by two dailies three weeks later, a group calling itself "Devotees of the Pure Mohammedan Islam" claimed responsibility for the assassinations. The communiqué said that "dirty mercenary elements" were "executed" by the "brave and valiant sons" of the Islamic revolution.
Finally, in the first week of 1999, a press release from the Intelligence Ministry made it clear that at least some of the "brave and valiant sons" were members of that ministry.
These incidents come amid a continuing power struggle between the moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, and a powerful conservative faction.
Attacking writers and journalist had been long spoken of before killings took place. Journalists and writers had been frequently verbally attacked by members of the conservative ruling minority, such as the head of the judiciary, the parliamentary speaker, the supreme leader and the minority of the country's dailies, whilst writers were defended by the president, his ministers and the majority of dailies.
A common accusation has been that writers and journalists are targeting the faith of the people, especially the youth.
The fiercest attack was made by the head of the highly ideological military force of Revolutionary Guards in early 1998. Addressing a conference, General Yahya Safavi said that dissident voices had been allowed for the purpose of identifying their owners, and that they were under close surveillance and would be silenced. He talked of tongues and heads being cut off by swords at the proper time.
Safavi added immediately that by "sword" he meant the "pen as sword". Nevertheless, disclosure of his speech by the second popular daily in the country ended in its permanent closure.
The immediate and tangible outcome of Khatami's victory in 1997 has been an unprecedented level of freedom of expression and a staggering proliferation of print media. In fact, freedom of speech was one pillar of Khatami's agenda for political development and his vision of a "civil society".
That promise was, and still is, pursued by Khatami's minister of culture and the cabinet speaker, Dr A. Mohajerani, himself a scholar.
Violence has not been neglected by the conservatives. Even Khatami during his election campaign was not immune from the attacks and insults of militant groups.
The militants, mainly gangs of young people, furiously reiterated conservative slogans, and received the conservatives' full support, including immunity from prosecution.
Even when hardliners attacked peaceful, legal rallies before the eyes of the police, they were not, and still are not, stopped. Frequently the victims are arrested instead of the perpetrators.
Recently a daily published by the former president's daughter, herself an MP for Tehran, reported that a police general in plain clothes, the head of the intelligence services of the security forces, was among the people who attacked on the street and injured Khatami's minister of culture and speaker, as well as his former minister of state.
In addition to "street incidents", it appears that a more hidden criminal agenda for physically eliminating dissident voices is under way. The IWA seems to have been a special target for its 20 years of struggle for the right to exist.
Mohammad Mokhtari was an old member of IWA and played a role in attempts to revive it after the crackdown on civil liberties in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution. He was the secretary of IWA before its office in Tehran was closed by security forces.
Mokhtari was arrested some years later and held for two years before being released. He told this author that after one year of imprisonment, he was advised to promise not to continue his activities in IWA as a condition for immediate freedom. He refused to do so and remained in jail for another year.
After release from jail and dismissal without compensation from his position as a research member of the Iranian Academy for Humanities, where he held a position for more than 10 years, he established himself as a freelance writer, on ancient Iranian mythology, which was his area of expertise, and as a literary critic.
His latest work, "Social Tolerance", published just before his murder, signals another area of interest. Mokhtari was most probably the author of the 1994 declaration signed by 134 Iranian writers pleading for the right for expression.
Jafar Pouyandeh was also a devoted member of IWA.
The two were among six prominent writers and secular intellectuals questioned in October 1998 by an Islamic revolutionary court regarding their activities. The court, according to a BBC correspondent, warned the writers that if they did not halt their meetings, they could be tried for anti-state activities.
The murder of Mokhtari and Pouyandeh, two people very little known at the national level, received an unprecedented response. The pro-democracy newspapers gave, and are still giving, full coverage to the events. They also praised the victims and condemned the perpetrators, not failing to refer to their origins.
The president expressed his condemnation of the crimes in the boldest language and promised to pursue the cases "to the last point". His spokesman paid tribute to the victims by attending their memorial services.
Newly established political parties, mainly consisting of high and middle-rank state bureaucrats and technocrats, condemned the killings. The non-conservative clerical establishment has been pursuing the case and demanding prosecution of the criminals.
Powerful Islamic student guilds, with tens of thousands of members, paid very warm tributes to a number of secular intellectuals who had died in their struggle for the separation of state and religion and freedom of speech. Their deaths were described as "injuries to the hearts of all those who are struggling for democracy within a Muslim Iran".
The size of the movement toward democracy is undeniable. According to a recent poll conducted by the state-owned Iran daily in the aftermath of the killings, only 3% of respondents maintained that print media should not be allowed to reflect oppositions' views, while 75% believed that it is the responsibility of the print media to disseminate such views, and 79% maintained that such media should be supported by the government.
By classifying perpetrators as criminals, the conservatives have badly damaged the credibility of their rhetoric and, by extension, the social credibility and legitimacy of those who are associated with such rhetoric.
The move by so many Iranians to embrace the principles of civil society, after some 20 years of regression to tradition, aims to end a 200-year-old conflict between modernity and tradition, and replace that conflict with continuous dialogue.
After so many decades of profound division between the masses and the intelligentsia, and among the intelligentsia itself, the country is witnessing wide consensus around a single political agenda, that for a democratic life. The sacrifice of the latest victims of brutality is a high price to pay, but who knows that they themselves didn't foresee and expect it?