TEHRAN First of September (IPS) Amidst growing controversy over the Islamic punishment of flogging, hanging and stoning wrongdoers in public, more conservative tenors have added recently their voices in support of the measures and called for the "talebanisation", or "saudisation" of the Iranian regime.
The punishments, known as Islamic measures, have been put into effect since last month by the Chief Judiciary, the Iraqi-born Ayatollah Mahmood Hashemi-Shahroodi, on orders from the leader of the present Iranian Islamic system, Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, himself a devout fundamentalist.
However, what opposes the clerics is not the flogging or hanging, but the place that the penalty should take place and applied, as the orthodox insist the measures be carried out in public in order to produce the maximum of impact on both the culprits and the society in the one hand and on the other, the moderates, fearing for the image of Islam and Iran's relations with outside world, wants them to take place behind closed doors.
"The (Afghan ruling) Taleban, which we always curse, have restored security for their people. Are we less than them?" said former Intelligence Minister Hojjatoleslam Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi during Friday prayers in Tehran.
Mr. Dorri-Najafabadi called for the "talebanisation" of the Iranian regime even though not only Tehran has not recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but routinely condemns the Taleban for their zeal in the strict application of Islamic laws, including forbidding women from work and education, music, dance, arts, or their recent destruction of giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyan.
"In Islam's heyday, a woman could safely travel the world all alone. Iran should become like that", Mr. Dorri-Najafabadi said, without giving any example of such women travellers during Islamic heydays, when women were not allowed to come out of their tents, let alone travel.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the Secretary of the Guardians Council who was conducting the Friday priers in the Tehran University also defended the public flogging by citing the example of Saudi Arabia.
"Is it not a disgrace for us for not being able to guarantee security as much as the Saudis?" he asked the worshippers, before adding: "We must kiss the hands of those in the Judiciary who have decided to impose and carry out the Islamic punishments in public.
"Social corruption is running rampant in Iran. Corruption will burn us worse than fire; we have to stop it and the way to do it is by imposing divine limits", he said, pointing out that the aim of flogging culprits and hanging criminals in public is to keep the society free of corruption, moral as well as financial.
Mr. Jannati condemned the "commotion" which he said had been stirred up by foreign media over the public execution of punishments.
"The honour of the Islamic Revolution is under threat. How are foreigners to judge us?" he said, going on to say the punishments were essential for public security.
"What are we going to be left with if people's womenfolk do not feel secure? People may sacrifice even their property and their own lives, but they cannot tolerate anyone harassing their womenfolk," he said.
However, the renewal of public hangings and floggings has drawn criticism from reform-minded officials and international rights groups. They say such punishments are inhumane and harm Iran's image abroad at a time when President Mohammad Khatami fights hard to project Iran as an example of Islamic democracy in the world, if not a democratic state.
Since the introduction of the measures, more than three hundred people, mostly young ones of both sexes have been flogged in public places in Tehran and other cities and a dozen of others have been hanged.
Those hanged in public in Iran are generally convicted murderers, kidnappers or drug traffickers. Courts order public lashings mainly for young men charged with harassing women or drinking alcohol, banned by Islam.
Contrary to Mr. Hashemi-Shahroodi and other hard line clerics who pretend that the public is happy with the flogging and hanging, eyewitnesses and journalists present at the scenes have reported clashes between people protecting to the measures with Law Enforcement Forces.
To complete the Islamic punishments, the authorities have also introduced new restrictions for people's behaviour in public, forbidding restaurants and cafes owners to serve women not respecting full Islamic dress known as hejab, shop owners selling women clothes not use female mannequins in their windows and not display women underwear, ordering police to arrest drivers driving with loud music, mostly western, people wearing T-shirt with pictures of pop singers or movie stars, etc.
"The picture displayed before our eyes is one where every thing is dark, closure, limitations, violence and repression", Interior Minister Hojjatoleslam Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari told the annual gathering of Iranian students.
Referring to the supporters of talebanisation, Mr. Mousavi-Lari said the picture orthodox project from Islam is "nothing but darkness and violence" but immediately added that he was not against flogging, but not be carried out in public places and in the presence of thousands of people, some disapproving.
Reformist officials, including Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, have warned Hashemi-Shahroodi about flogging and hanging, telling him that the measures harms Iran's international standing and its drive to attract foreign tourists and investment.
But the President of the Supreme Court go even further than other hard line conservatives, saying one can even set a fire and throw the culprits into it alive.
He also warned the reformists-dominated Majles against interfering in the execution of Islamic punishments amid an intense political debate over the rising number of public floggings.
"The penal code complements judicial laws. If the penal code did not exist, order in society would be destabilised", Ayatollah Mohammadi Gilani said, cited by Thursday's afternoon Kayhan paper.
"MMs (members of the Majles) should not cross the line when commenting (on the issue) and should not enter the field of Islamic jurisprudence," Gilani said, criticising "all this uproar" over public punishments.
"If anyone has corrupted, then that person must be punished according to Islamic penal code", he said, adding that only the nation's supreme leader can intervene in the carrying out of a punishment.
In recent days, the nation's powerful conservatives have been caught up in a debate with reformers concerned over the effects of public punishments on Iran's international image.
Gilani's comments also come just after parliament held a top-level emergency meeting Tuesday to review the debate over public punishments.
Mr. Gilani disclosed that the public punishments are carried out with the authorization of Ayatollah Khameneh'i who, so far, has not taken side, but observer quotes a Persian proverb that says "silence is synonymous of approval".
The issue of public punishments "is not just a legal matter, but also carries political, security, social, domestic and international" importance, said Mr. Mohsen Armin, Majles deputy Speaker.
According to Armin, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) headed by President Khatami is now scheduled to study the report by parliament's national security and foreign policy committee on the debate.
But Mr. Gilani say one cannot compromise on divine orders. "If we had implemented Islamic teachings all along, we would not have had all this hue and cry", he told No Rooz newspaper.
The ayatollah described Islamic guidelines on flogging offenders as follows: "We beat them to the point where the whip breaks the skin and scores the flesh underneath. It is alright to break the bone, and if he dies under the blows, he is not entitled to blood money."
He said there was a maximum number of lashes authorized, and that there were rules about whether "to hold the whip by the end, the middle, or at a third of the length".
For his part, ultraconservative Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, professor at a religious school in the Iranian holy city of Qom, said last week that "if the Westerners do not like it, that is their problem, but the death penalty and the use of flogging are fundamental principles of our religion."
Intellectuals and dissident rights groups outside Iran have strongly rejected the decision of flogging.
"One would wish that the reformists had the same courage of their views in condemning categorically the measures, as the conservatives who openly and defiantly defend flogging and hanging", commented Dr. Hoseyn Baqerzadeh, a human rights activist based in England.