Iran Focus: Tehran, Sep. 29 – They left their village before
dawn to be at the gates of the complex housing the judiciary in Tehran before it opened. They were more than a hundred; all men, their lean faces tanned and their large hands callused and rough. Most looked young, some middle-aged, and a handful very old. Iran Focus

Tehran, Sep. 29 – They left their village before dawn to be at the gates of the complex housing the judiciary in Tehran before it opened. They were more than a hundred; all men, their lean faces tanned and their large hands callused and rough. Most looked young, some middle-aged, and a handful very old.

The group of men waited impatiently outside the gates. They had come to the capital in the hope of being able to express their grievances directly to Chief Justice Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, and they had been told that today he would hold an open audience, receiving anyone who wished to see him.

“We want to see him to complain about the way we have been treated by his religious judge in our county,” Shahab, a sturdy young man with keen black eyes, grumbled. “He has sentenced dozens of men in our village to being flogged in public, simply because they were using water from the wells to irrigate their land.”

As we spoke, news got around that Shahab was talking to a journalist, and many of the men gathered around us. Soon a volley of interjections and comments followed, as Shahab’s fellow villagers tried to remind him of the things he had not mentioned.

“Tell him about Baba Abdollah,” someone told Shahab. Others looked around and made way for the frail figure of an old man to come into the center of this circle of human flesh now surrounding us. It was Baba Abdollah.

“I am 85 years old,” he said, and looked every bit as old. “They held a trial for me that lasted a few minutes. Then the mullah judge said, ‘Sixty lashes, 35 days in prison.’ When I began to protest, he raised his hand and said, ‘Fine him for 120,000 tomans.’ I shut up and they took me straight to the public square and whipped me 60 times.”
It took him a long time to utter these words in his broken, almost inaudible voice, laden with pain. As he stopped, he began taking off his worn jacket to show the scars on his back.

What was he being tried for?

“They say you are illegally removing water from the wells for irrigation. The fact is, we live off this land. Since the time of our ancestors, we have been using water from the wells and qanats. Now these corrupt officials are preventing us, because they are bribed by big landowners who want the water all to themselves.”

Baba Abdollah’s senility gives him a courage that many others find hard to pluck. But even those too fearful to speak out their minds in front of others tell you quietly that things are bad in the village of Tabartah, near the town of Farahan in central Iran.

In the past few weeks, the court in Farahan has been cracking down on farmers in Tabartah, sealing off their wells and sentencing them to flogging, imprisonment and heavy fines on charges of illegal use of underground water resources. The religious judge in Farahan has ordered the local security forces to implement his orders and put down any protest by villagers. The ensuing clashes and the heavy-handed crackdown have angered the villagers, who nonetheless remain defiant.
“Let them do whatever they can,” one of the men in khaki shirt said as he pointed his finger at the guards standing at the gates. “Crops are our lifeline. We are farmers; we need water. They can go to hell.”

By now two other old men have been brought to us by the younger villagers. One was choking with grief as he spoke. “I have two handicapped children. They fined me 500,000 tomans and whipped me 60 times. Can you humiliate a man of 60 in a worse manner? But there is God, and our day will come.”

The older man next to him said his son had been killed in the war with Iraq. “Now, I am 72, and instead of showing me respect, they flogged me 60 times in public. What am I to do?” he asked in a tone as much loaded with anger as despair.

Several villagers showed official verdicts by the court of Farahan, sentencing these men to flogging in public.

By noon, as hours of waiting outside the gates of the ayatollah’s office began to take its toll on the villagers, their complaints became increasingly bitter. Some began to wonder if the ayatollah would at all grant them an audience.

“They have no time for the mostaz’afin,” one of the men said mockingly, using the Quranic word meaning the downtrodden, a word used daily in the speeches of the Islamic Republic’s clerical leaders. “The downtrodden are only good for their propaganda, nothing else.”

In the cluster of men who could hear his quiet words, everyone else nodded in agreement. The anger and frustration was clearly visible in the faces of these hardened men. Impoverished, religiously conservative villagers who once formed the bedrock of support for the clerical rulers now seemed as entrenched as any other section of Iranian society in their desire for radical change.

“They make promises and they break promises,” Seifollah, a middle-aged man, said of the clerical leaders. “Let’s face it. Things aren’t going to change as long as they remain in charge.”

It was four o’clock and the guards began to close the gates at the end of the office hours, when the villagers finally realized that the chief justice was not going to see them. Angry and bitter, they began walking towards the bus station. A long day for a group of desperate villagers was coming to an end, but their ominous message for the ruling clerics was only just beginning.