Military Trials(December 1983 – January 1984)

The 101 were before a Military Tribunal in late 1983. Their judge was Hojjat al-Islam Reyshahri, Mehdi Hashemi's chief interrogator. Although the press gave extensive coverage, it never revealed the tribunal's location. The court walls displayed a well-known Khomeini quotation: “America Is Worse than Britain. Britain Is Worse than America. The Soviets Are Worse than Both.” The defendants were charged with “sowing corruption on earth”, “spying for a foreign power”, “stockpiling arms”, “plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic” and “violating the edict against political activities in the armed forces”. The press portrayed the trial as one of espionage. But the court itself focused on subversion, especially plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
The defendants included a number of stars: Admiral Bahram Afzali, the commander of the victorious navy in the Gulf War; Colonel Houshang Attarian, a special assistant to the war minister; Colonel Bezhan Kabiri, a decorated field commander from the war front; Colonel Hassan Azarfar, a professor at the Military Academy; Colonel Seifallah Ghiasund, a medical doctor who had also recently returned from the front; and Colonel Abul-Qassem Afrayi, a gendarmerie officer who had been decorated for his refusal to shoot into the crowds during the revolution. Most of the others were young officers, sergeants and air force technicians.
The prosecutor presented Kianuri and Partovi as “state witnesses”. Throughout the proceedings, Kianuri spoke in generalities about how the Tudeh had always depended on the Soviets, failed to study history, and aspired to reach power some day. He also stressed that he, as party chairman, was willing to take full responsibility for all mistakes. Partovi, however, was a cooperative witness, detailing how Kianuri had created an armed underground organisation and sent reports to the Soviet Embassy. His evidence helped to seal the fate of some of his colleagues, including that of his younger brother.
Before the trial started, the military prosecutor declared that the earlier television confessions had already established the fact that Tudeh was guilty of “treason”, “espionage” and “subversion”. The newspaper headlines declared: “Tudeh Leaders Confess to Spying”; “Tudeh Plotted to Turn Iran into Another Afghanistan”; ”Tudeh gave the Soviets Information About Iran's Secret Missiles” and “Authorities Uncover the Largest Spy Network in the Whole World”.
Despite extensive preparations and exclusion of foreign reporters, the trial was not as well managed as the previous television recantations. The numbers involved made it somewhat unwieldy. Instead of providing the media with videotapes, the regime published summaries of the proceedings in the main newspapers. These summaries give inklings of the problems involved in stage managing such a large cast.
At first glance, the defendants appear to be acknowledging the serious charges. They use such terms as “treason”, “sin”, “crimes”, “guilt”, “betrayal”, “shame”, “dishonour”, “subversion” and “deserved punishments”. They submit to the regime, thank the wardens, recognise the legitimacy of the tribunal and praise the ultimate wisdom of the Imam. They beat their chests, beseech forgiveness and seek a second chance to serve the people, the revolution and the Imam. One defendant hoped that Imam Khomeini would continue to live until the reappearance of the Hidden Imam. Another declared that he had full trust in the tribunal because he knew it had given fair hearings to previous defendants. Yet another pleaded to be sent to the war front so he could die there and thus remove from himself and his family the stain of being a “traitor” and a “spy”; “the two most shameful words in our language”.
Closer scrutiny, however, reveals ambiguities, hidden meanings and double entendres. Those, including Western scholars, who read only the headlines came away convinced that the defendants had pleaded guilty to the charges. Those who read beyond the headlines are less sure. Some defendants retracted their signed confessions. Others diluted them with so many qualifications and explanations as to make them harmless. One refused to participate in the proceedings. At one point, the judge abruptly recessed the proceedings on the pretext that the electrical system had failed. At other points the judge and the prosecutor cut off the defendants in the middle of their statements because they had clearly wandered from the expected script. Some managed to drop the information that their wives and daughters had also been arrested. Others proclaimed that “their eyes had been opened in court” and that “the first they had heard of espionage was in prison”.
On the whole, the confessions were big on mea culpa but small on incriminating facts. Kianuri admitted that he had instructed the Tudeh underground to hide some two hundred handguns. He himself had purchased from a foreign engineer eight pistols and a radio receiver. And he had sent memos to the Soviet Embassy. But he drastically qualified each admission. The memos dealt with political, not security, issues. The underground organisation was designed to forestall a royalist coup, not to overthrow the Islamic Republic. “The 1953 fiasco had to be avoided at all cost”. The radio receiver and pistols were to facilitate escape in case of a military crackdown. He added that two hundred pistols could hardly threaten the powerful Islamic Republic. He further added the Tudeh hoped to come to power some day, but only if the Islamic Republic had already collapsed. “The Tudeh, like any real political party, intends to come to power some day”. For some, this was a confession of subversion. For others, it was a self-evident fact of political life.
Admiral Afzali implicitly ridiculed the notion that a small organisation could overthrow the mighty Islamic Republic. He acknowledged talking to Kianuri about the sunken Soviet submarine but added that this had no military significance as the accident had occurred two years earlier. He acknowledged other conversations with Kianuri but added that these dealt merely with politics and Bani-Sadr's “detrimental policies”. He declared that he had joined the Tudeh to “help the country, the revolution and the people of Iran”. He added that he had not concealed his pro-Tudeh sympathies as he had been an active party member in the early 1950s. He denied spying, adding cryptically that the “very first time he heard of such activities was after his arrest”. He beseeched the judge to undertake the task of defending him because he himself had no legal training. Of course none of the defendants had legal counsel.
Colonel Attarian conceded that he had joined the Tudeh in violation of the imam 's edict. But he categorically denied spying and plotting against the state. He admitted that he had compiled reports fort he central committee but explained that he had relied only on public sources such as newspapers, not on military documents. At this point, the prosecutor interjected to explain that th definition of “espionage” was not the passing of “confidential” information but of any information. “The definition of spy is someone who passes to foreigners any information whatsoever”. This brief interjection spoke volumes.

Colonel Kabiri declared that he would accept any verdict the judge handed down but denied the charges and stressed that he had never hidden his sympathies for the Tudeh, even when fighting at the front. Colonel Azarfar denounced himself as a “traitor” on the grounds that he had had reservations about continuing the war into Iraq. “I realise now that I must support the government wholeheartedly.” Colonel Ghiasund confessed that he had written a report on war casualties, but in doing so had merely used data published in the daily newspapers. He categorically denied that the party had asked him for secret data. Likewise, retired Colonel Afrayi argued he had no secrets to give and asked why the authorities had not banned the Tudeh earlier if it was such an evil “anti-Islamic organisation.” Another colonel pleaded that he had given money to the Tudeh not realising it true nature. At this point, the prosecutor exclaimed: “How can an educated person like you claim you are ignorant of the atheistic nature of the Tudeh party. Only uneducated simpletons could think that Marxism is compatible with Islam.” This belied the official claim that the defendants were being prosecuted for espionage and subversion, not for political beliefs.

Many managed to smuggle in pro-Tudeh propaganda. Most stressed that they had joined the Tudeh because it was the only party supporting the revolution and the republic. Some repeated the claim that the party had created the secret organisation for use only against a possible royalist counter-revolution. The regime could hardly dismiss this as absurd as it claimed to live in permanent fear of such a counter-revolution. Some declared that the money collected from membership dues went to feed the unemployed. One noted that Admiral Afzali had sold family lands in Qom to aid those who had lost their jobs. Another argued that he had no intention of “defending” himself because he did not consider the party to be an enemy of the Islamic Republic. Yet another declared that he had joined the Tudeh because it was the only party at the time to “champion the rights of the the peasantry.”

The tribunal handed down uneven sentences. It condemned ten to death; six to life imprisonment; twelve to terms ranging from fifteen t thirty years; nineteen to terms ranging from eight to fourteen years; eight to seven years; thirty to five years; and thirteen to less than five years. The condemned, including Admiral Afzali as well as Colonels Attarian, Kabiri and Azarfar, were executed in February 1984. Nineteen others, including two who had completed their sentences, perished in the 1988 executions.

At a press conference convened to announce the ten executions, Reyshahri declared that he had been lenient with some despite the enormity of their crimes because their cooperation and recantations had proved the sincerity of their repentances. When a French reporter asked if the government had more evidence than that presented in the newspapers, he answered in the affirmative, adding that some of the proof was too sensitive to show in open court. When a Japanese correspondent asked why the numbers of those sentenced did not tally with those originally brought to trial, he hedged, it was rumoured some had died during their interrogation. When an Iranian reporter noted that some foreign correspondents were intrigued about why so many diehard communists would repent their sins, he replied that he too had been “surprised”. But he added that psychologists could understand why even hardened “materialists” repent when confronted by “upright Islamic officials”:

One of the revolution's greatest assets is the ability to get criminals to look at their own nature and discard the veils of deception that cover their eyes. As many of the defendants have admitted, they had been blind before their arrest, but in prison they have seen the light. In short, to answer your question, one has to know something about psychology.

Koestler's Ivanov too had flattered himself as an amateur psychologist.