Reformist Mayor of Tehran Gets 5-Year Sentence


To the shock of friends and supporters, a conservative Islamic judge in Iran on Thursday convicted Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the reformist mayor of Tehran, of corruption and sentenced him to five years in prison, 60 lashes and fines of more than $300,000.

The verdict against Karbaschi, a leading symbol of the new climate of liberalization in the Islamic Republic and one of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s staunchest political allies, was harsher than most analysts expected. It seemed to represent a strong backlash by the country’s religious establishment against Khatami and his attempts to implement moderate changes in Iran’s nearly 20-year-old revolution.

It also came on a day when the Clinton administration in Washington sought to downplay the long-term significance of another action by the Iranians: the test-launch of a medium-range missile capable of striking targets throughout the Mideast.


Administration officials insisted that this military development will not derail Washington’s efforts to improve relations with Khatami’s reformist regime.

While some observers saw a temporary triumph for hard-line elements in Iran with the tough punishment for the chief official of the Iranian capital, many analysts believe that Karbaschi’s spirited defense at his six-week trial--broadcast in full by state media--will ultimately turn the mayor into a folk hero and become a political victory for Khatami forces.

Judge Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, who, under Iranian law, fulfilled the roles of chief investigator, prosecutor and jury, delivered his verdict in a stern 40-minute speech from the bench, in which he invoked the will of God and denied that politics had entered into his deliberations.

Karbaschi was not present for sentencing after he was found guilty of embezzlement, wasting public property and mismanagement. He was acquitted on a separate charge of bribery.

The charges essentially accused him of misappropriating public money to reward his friends and supporters, including funneling money into Khatami’s successful election campaign in 1997.

He was given 20 days in which to file an appeal, which his lawyer said was likely. Meanwhile, Karbaschi remained free.


The judge also said he was suspending the lashings in deference to Karbaschi’s public standing. But he barred Karbaschi from holding public employment for 20 years. It was unclear if this ban really will stop Karbaschi, 44, who has been mentioned by some Iranians as a future presidential candidate, from seeking elective office.

Because the verdict was issued at the start of the Iranian weekend, initial public reaction was muted. Afternoon newspapers published the court decision without comment, and there were no immediate public demonstrations in support of the mayor. Nor was there any public reaction from Khatami’s office or members of his Cabinet.

“For the last few hours, everybody is in a kind of shock,” University of Tehran political scientist Hadi Semati said.

The ruling is the latest in a series of blows to Khatami, the moderate cleric whose astonishing May 1997 landslide election victory was seen as a huge expression of public sentiment for greater freedom in Iran as its 1979 revolution approaches its 20th anniversary.

But since Khatami took office almost a year ago, his conservative opponents--who still control Iran’s powerful parliament and judiciary--have labored to block his efforts to liberalize Iranian life and allow more freedom of expression and contacts with the outside world. They have not dared to attack Khatami personally because he is so popular.

Besides indicting Karbaschi, the conservative forces in June succeeded in removing moderate Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri from office for criticizing the judiciary and authorizing public demonstrations.


A court also moved to shut down Jameah, a pro-Khatami newspaper that rocketed to No. 1 in circulation in Tehran, asserting it had printed articles that were “defamatory and untruthful” and contrary to public order. On the same day Karbaschi was sentenced, an appeals court upheld Jameah’s closure. The paper is to stop publishing immediately. But Mashaalh Shamsolwaizin, its editor, said the paper’s staff is ready to publish a new daily under a different name.

Speaking before Thursday’s actions, Shamsolwaizin said that he saw his paper’s case and the Karbaschi trial as separate battlefronts of the same war. “There are two groups facing each other”--traditionalists and modernizers, he said. “Don’t forget that the conservatives are very powerful. But I see Iran’s future is in modernization. So we are trying to pass through this transition peacefully.”

He said that even if Karbaschi is imprisoned, he would simply join the pantheon of heroic “symbols” for Iranians. Before Ejei issued his verdict against Karbaschi, most analysts had been predicting only a light or suspended sentence, expecting that the judge would not want to risk a public outburst with a stiff sentence.

The trial, whose seven sessions were avidly watched on state television, had an infectious effect on Iranians. Not only did Karbaschi question the charges against him and the fairness of the judicial system, he even accused police of obtaining evidence against him via beatings and torture.

A former student of Islamic theology who spent time in prison in the 1970s for his opposition to Iran’s late shah, Karbaschi was a dynamic manager who clearly relished the challenge of bringing order to Tehran, a city choked by its swelling population.

In eight years in office, he reduced Tehran’s chaotic traffic by building ring roads and limiting private automobiles in the central districts. He beautified the city, building hundreds of parks and gardens, and fought housing shortages with high-rise apartment complexes.


In an interview published in Jameah last week as he awaited the judge’s verdict, Karbaschi said he was proud of what he and his staff had achieved and was prepared for whatever happened next. He said he was inspired by the outpouring of affection he has received. “When I look at this generation, particularly the innocent youth, I feel that you should not be afraid of difficulties, even if it is a matter of life and death,” he said.