Iran parliament defines 'political crimes' in apparent nod to reform

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran’s parliament passed a law on Sunday defining “political offences” that would be guaranteed public trials, a measure credited by President Hassan Rouhani’s pragmatic government as a step towards reform, but faulted for not going far enough.

Iran’s constitution provides for public trials and other legal protections for people accused of political crimes, but these have never been defined. Most people considered by human rights groups to be political prisoners in Iran are charged with security offences, which are often subject to secret tribunals.

Rouhani, who was elected in 2013 in a landslide on a promise to open Iranian society, has called for more transparency in the legal code about which crimes are political and therefore entitle defendants to greater protection.

The president’s reform agenda won a major victory abroad this month with the lifting of international financial sanctions against Iran, in line with a deal he agreed last year to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

But his domestic agenda still faces strong opposition from hardliners who are powerful in parliament and among the clerical establishment, which ultimately has more authority than the president himself.

Sunday’s new law suggested protections for political crime suspects would be offered for offences such as insulting senior officials and spreading rumors, but not for violent crimes or attempts to overthrow the state.

“Breaches of law committed against state ... bodies or internal and foreign policies of the country, as long as they are committed to achieve reforms and not intended to target the system, are considered political crimes,” read one of the law’s articles.

In a session carried live on state radio, lawmakers backed the bill, which still need to be approved by a high clerical council before it takes effect.

Majid Ansari, Rouhani’s vice president for parliamentary affairs, said the government viewed the law as a positive step, but one that did not go far enough because it did not provide enough detail.

“The present proposed law does not have sufficient breadth, because defining political crimes is a difficult task,” Ansari told lawmakers.

International rights groups often complain that constitutional safeguards on political crimes are ignored as defendants are charged with crimes against national security and tried behind closed doors.

Iran rejects Western criticism of its rights record, including a high number of executions linked to drugs smuggling. It says it has lost many security personnel in skirmishes with drug traffickers in regions bordering Afghanistan, the top world opium supplier.

Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Peter Graff