Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s right to rule received an unprecedented challenge from a group of former reformist politicians today.
They appealed to a powerful clerical body to investigate his position as the shockwaves from the country’s post-election crackdown continued.
The call came as controversy heated up over allegations that anti-government protesters were tortured. Hard-line clerics across the country demanded that a senior reform leader be prosecuted for claiming that some detainees were raped by their jailers.
The politician’s appeal was to the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics that under Iranian law has the power to name the supreme leader and, in theory, to remove him – though such a move has never been attempted.
But even if the call is ignored and is only symbolic, it was the most direct challenge to Khamenei yet in the turmoil that has embroiled Iran since its disputed June 12 presidential election.
It breaks a major taboo among Iran’s political classes against overtly targeting Khamenei, whose position at the top of the political-clerical hierarchy has long been unquestioned.
The appeal, via a letter reported in opposition websites, came from a group mostly from the reform camp.
In it, they sharply denounce the crackdown, in which hundreds of protesters and opposition politicians were arrested and, the opposition says, 68 people were killed. They also denounce the trial that began this month of 100 politicians and activists accused of seeking to topple the Islamic Republic through the wave of protests that erupted over the election.
Their letter calls it a “show trial” and a “Stalinesque court” and said Kahrizak prison – the facility on Tehran’s outskirts where much of the abuse allegedly took place – was worse than the US prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
They said the supreme leader is responsible for the judicial system and the security forces who carried out the crackdown, adding that Iran’s constitution underlines that “the supreme leader is on the same level as the rest of the people before the law.”
They “demand a legal probe on the basis of Article 11 of the Constitution, which is a responsibility of the Experts Assembly,” the letter said. Article 11 says that if the supreme leader “becomes incapable of fulfilling his constitutional duties,” he will be dismissed.
The letter was addressed to Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful former president and cleric who heads of the Assembly of Experts. Rafsanjani has sided with the opposition in the election crisis, but accepting to investigate the supreme leader would probably be too dramatic a step for him to take. Around two-thirds of the 86-member assembly are considered strong loyalists of Khamenei and would oppose the move.
There was no sign that opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims to have won the election, backs the former lawmakers’ letter.
But the letter suggested how much some in the opposition have been emboldened at a time when the government and clerical leadership have been deeply embarrassed by the claims of torture and abuse against prisoners.
Security forces and the elite Revolutionary Guard harshly crushed the mass protests that erupted after the election in support of Mousavi, who clams that hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the vote was fraudulent. In past weeks, there have been reports of young protesters who died while in prison, apparently from torture or other abuse.
This week, a top Mousavi ally, Mahdi Karroubi, went further, claiming that male and female detainees had been raped by their jailers. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani quickly denied the allegations, saying a parliamentary probe into the allegations had found no truth in the reports.