'Confessions' on TV to Counter 'Velvet Revolution'

Iranian state-run TV aired Wednesday and Thursday ‘confessions’ of two Iranian-American academics arrested in May and held incommunicado since then. Both academics have officially been charged with acting against national security and espionage.

Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh have not had access to legal counsel during their detention. Efforts made by Iran's Peace Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, appointed by the family of Esfandiari as her lawyer, to meet her have failed.

The programme 'In the Name of Democracy' was aired at prime time and featured video footage of the two scholars as well as of Ramin Jahanbeglou, the Iranian-Canadian intellectual who was arrested in April 2006 and released four months later without either being convicted or acquitted of the charges.

Rumours of televised confessions were circulated before Jahanbeglou's release from jail, but instead, he made a visit to a news agency barely hours from his release from Tehran's notorious Evin prison and gave a 'voluntary' lengthy interview in which he said he had unknowingly become a tool in the hands of Americans and Israelis.

Jahanbeglou left Iran for India a few months after his release and has not returned to Iran since then, so it appears that his recent televised confession must have been part of a film taken nearly a year earlier while he was in detention in Tehran.

In a statement released after the two scholars were arrested in May the Iranian intelligence ministry said the Wilson Centre for which Esfandiari worked had become the body linking Iranian intellectuals with U.S. organisations such as Soros to further the "goals of foreign countries." The statement also said Esfandiari had confessed that Soros Foundation had been creating a network in Iran to overthrow the Iranian regime.

The frequent advertising of the ‘confession’ footage in previous days had created expectations of sensational confessions, but the academics who appeared on the programme mainly talked about participation in conferences on Iran and contact building strategies.

The so-called confessions were interspersed with bits of a documentary that alleged U.S. sponsoring and organisation of the 'velvet revolution' in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Georgia.

"I couldn't make the head or tail of the programme but it seemed like the three people who appeared in the programme had taken money from some Americans to mobilise people for some sort of revolution like what happened in Ukraine and Georgia. They all looked scared and it seemed as if they were repeating what they had been told to say. Under pressure any bird can be made to sing like a canary,’’ Ahmad, a 45-year-old taxi driver on the streets of Tehran, told IPS.

There are quite a few precedents to the televised confessions of Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh and Jahanbeglou -- who was the only one shown expressly admitting he had done wrong. He apologised for serving the interests of foreign powers instead of his own country's.

Individuals who have appeared in similar televised programmes in the past such as student leaders Ali Afshari and Manouchehr Mohammadi have invariably claimed afterwards that they had been under immense pressure to "confess".

"They know that the outside world will not believe any of the so-called confessions but they are hoping this can have domestic impact. The confessions are only a part of a larger scenario hardliners have prepared on a very large scale to drive everybody to passivity and silence now that sanctions are getting quite serious and prospects of hardliners winning the upcoming (parliament) elections don't look very promising," a political activist requesting anonymity told IPS.

"Extracting ridiculous confessions out of people like these respected intellectuals will make anybody who said going to jail was a small price to pay for political activity think twice,’’ he added.

Televising the confessions of the two scholars has been widely criticised by various Iranian groups since the country's laws expressly ban publicising the names and charges of people before they are convicted.

Certain sources have reported the possibility of some kind of a deal between the accused and the Intelligence ministry -- release of the accused after the confessions are broadcast -- Baztab, a hardline news portal, wrote after the programme was aired.

On the other hand, some reports indicate the case has reached its final stages and the accused are to receive heavy sentences, so the confessions are meant as psychological preparation for the announcement of the verdicts, a news site which is run by a rival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and strongly critical of his administration, says. The news site is filtered in Iran.

Iran's chief judge has announced the confessions made on the TV programme are of no legal value, Baztab reported. Hard line newspapers, however, have been claiming that the two scholars who have appeared on the programme have done so of their own will, to express 'expert opinion'.

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based international rights group has expressed concern that Tehran used "coercive means to compel Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh to make statements that may be later used to incriminate them in court’’.

Esfandiari, 67, heads the Middle-East programme at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. She was arrested when she arrived in Iran late last year to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother.

"The regime is very rightly and understandably apprehensive about the activities of non-governmental organisations and civil society activists. In the absence of strong political parties, the development of which the regime has always tried to retard by various means, any organisation or body that can be used by anyone other than the regime itself to mobilise people can be a great potential danger. The 'networks' of the kind Esfandiari said Soros Foundation has been attempting to organise among intellectuals here pose exactly the same problem, even a bigger one," an observer in Tehran requesting anonymity told IPS.

"Hard line militarists themselves used exactly the same kind of networking to bring Ahmadinejad to power two years ago. Two weeks before the elections he had been a rather obscure figure to the nation. His campaign was insignificant compared to his rivals' campaigns. Overnight, he became famous. It was said that every Basij militiaman had been instructed to recruit ten people to vote for Ahmadinejad, who in turn were supposed to recruit ten others," he said.

"It worked very well in Ahmadinejad's case. What guarantee is there for others not to use the same method, through seemingly harmless networks to kickstart the kind of 'velvet revolution' the regime is so pathetically afraid of," he added.