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March 99, Week 3
|Iranians Get Taste of Cherry
|Feature Iran Denies Politics Are Behind Its Oscar Hopes
|Iranian Group Calls on U.S. to Clarify Allegation
|Government Breaks up Ring that Helped Foreigners with Visas
|FBI Says Alleged Forgers Helped Iranian Group
|Text of Clinton Transmittal Letter to Congress on Iran
|Islamic Iran Braces for Zoroastrian Fire Festival
|2 Groups Appeal U.S. Designation as Terror Organizations
Iranians Get Taste of Cherry
CAIRO (Variety) - After being banned for nearly three years in its country of
origin, the award-winning Iranian film "Taste of Cherry" will screen in Iran, according to Tehran
Despite the film's international acclaim and awards -- including the Palme d'Or at Cannes -- Iranians have been unable to judge for themselves what the hubbub over Abbas Kiarostami's film is all about.
But that's soon to change. It will be screened for the public in two Tehran cinemas, the press reports said. Dates of the screenings have not been determined.
The approval to show the film represents a further relaxation of censorship of the arts by the reformist regime of President Mohammed Khatami.
The apparent reason for "Cherry's" previous banning was that the film deals with the subject of suicide, which is considered a sacrilege in the religious tenets of Islam.
Feature Iran Denies Politics Are Behind Its Oscar Hopes
TEHRAN, (Reuters) - Iran's booming film industry hopes the fact that Oscar
night coincides with the start of the Iranian new year will help bring home a
prestigious statuette for the first time, despite speculation that politics, not art, might lie behind
On February 10, the last day of the Fajr international film festival in Tehran, it was announced thousands of miles away in Hollywood that Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven" had been nominated for an Academy Award in the category of best foreign language film.
It was a double triumph for 39-year-old Majidi, whose other film "The Colour of God," the touching story of a blind boy's difficult relationship with his father, had taken top honours in Tehran on the same day.
News of the Oscar nomination was carried by Iranian media amid speculation by some sceptics that it could not have happened without the dark forces of geo-politics.
However, Majidi rejects any plots behind the nomination for his film, distributed in the United States by Miramax.
The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who decide the Oscars are the most independent experts in the industry, he said. Their number and different views made it unthinkable that they could be manipulated to any political ends, he told Reuters.
FILMS OF A DIFFERENT FEATHER
The nomination could fuel political speculation because of the tense relations between the two countries, but cultural ties have increased in recent years regardless of the battle of words between statesmen, Majidi said.
"Culture is much more important than politics. My film relates to the masses of people, tries to eradicate suspicions and misunderstandings among nations, and to change views of many people in the face of political propaganda against Iran," Majidi said.
Iranian film makers have fascinated film festival juries the world over as they struggle at home with restrictions that prevent them from dealing with certain subjects.
For example, they can neither show women without the Islamic dress code, or hejab, nor any physical contact between the sexes. Direct reference to sexual love has been another taboo for directors since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Pressures have eased somewhat since the 1997 election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami, with many hitherto banned films appearing at cinemas despite protests by conservatives who fear a dilution of revolutionary principles.
Like Jafar Panahi's much admired "The White Balloon" and other Iranian films that have won international acclaim in recent years, Majidi's movie centres around an apparently trivial incident which turns into an excruciating dilemma for its protagonists and draws the audience into the suspense.
The film tells the story of Zahra, a poor little girl who loses her shoes. Frightened of her father's rage, she secretly shares the shoes of her devoted brother, Ali, to attend separate shifts at the neighbourhood school.
Ali, a talented runner, wheedles his way into a race at the last minute, determined to capture the third prize of a pair of shiny new sneakers to give to his sister. But in the heat of battle he overtakes the last two boys and wins the race, receiving a trophy but losing out on the new shoes.
"Children of Heaven" won eight prizes in last year's Fajr film festival and four awards from the Montreal film festival in 1996.
Despite good reviews it has not been a great box-office hit in Iran. Some critics explained its commercial shortcomings by suggesting it was too sentimental, or that it displayed jarring scenes of extreme poverty.
Film critic Jamshid Arjmand said such objections were irrelevant.
"The point is that Majidi has masterfully controlled this subject matter to make a film which observes all professional criteria and at the same time conveys a shocking sensation," he said.
Majidi, an admirer of the late American film maker John Ford, says the screenplay was derived from a factual story and that he did not seek to lyricise poverty.
"My focus is not poverty or class distinction, I rather wanted to accentuate pure human virtues even amid hardship, the devotion and dedication among siblings, and to assert that the human being can overcome problems in any circumstances."
But he does not deny the impact of his love for children and his passionate social conscience.
"I also wanted to awaken those rich people who are negligent towards their poor fellow humans," he said, adding that the movie was not an overt political statement although it had moral implications.
None of the film's actors had previously appeared in front of the camera but Majidi's experience with children's films and plays enabled him to work with and guide the untrained cast.
"Children of Heaven" faces tough competition from four other films in the same category on Sunday. Favourites include "Life Is Beautiful" from Italy and the Brazilian film "Central Station."
"They are major rivals, but the chances of my film are higher," Majidi said. "When I visited the United States in January to introduce the film, the reaction of critics was very favourable, and many predicted it has a good chance of winning."
"If it wins the prize, it will be a major event for the totality of our cultural society, for it will open new avenues between our cinema and the world, particularly the United States, which has the last word in world cinema," said Arjmand.
Iranian Group Calls on U.S. to Clarify Allegation
LOS ANGELES,(Reuters) - An Iranian coalition group called on the U.S.
Justice Department on Wednesday to clarify an allegation that members the People's Mojahedin Organisation had
entered the United States using forged documents.
Sam Sami, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile group working to overthrow the current Iranian regime by legitimate means, said the People's Mojahedin Organisation (PMO) "emphatically denies" the allegation.
U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas announced in Los Angeles on Tuesday the arrest of members of an alleged forgery ring that specialised in preparing fraudulent immigration papers.
"Some of the (ring's) clients have been identified as members and associates of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK," Mayorkas said.
He described the MEK as "An Iran-based group that is believed to have been involved in the takeover of the United States Embassy (in Tehran) in 1979 and in numerous other violent acts around the world."
He added that the MEK was one of 30 groups designated as foreign terrorist organisations by the U.S. Secretary of State.
But Sam Sami indicated the MEK was the same group as the PMO.
"The People's Mojahedin is only ever referred to as the Mujahedin-e Khalq by the Iranian regime, which means that the State Department and the Justice Department are getting their information from the Iranian regime, which is seeking to discredit anyone who opposes it," Sami said.
She called on Mayorkas to be more specific.
"Who are these people who are said to be MEK? Why hasn't he named them? The truth is that the PMO operates only in Iran and in a legal manner," she said.
Sami added the PMO was currently fighting the Justice Department in federal court in Washington over its designation as a terrorist organisation.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran said in a statement that it "calls on the U.S. Department of Justice and other official organs to clarify the matter for the public without delay."
Government Breaks up Ring that Helped Foreigners with Visas
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Twenty-nine people have been arrested by authorities who say they
have broken up a forgery ring that helped Iranians and others acquire visas and asylum
in the United States.
The group allegedly provided new identities to clients, some of whom included members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq, U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas said. The group is one of 30 designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department.
The People's Mojahedin Organization, a member of the coalition National Council of Resistance of Iran, denied any involvement in the forgery ring.
"The Mojahedin have always functioned within the law of the country in which they have activity and are not, and have never been engaged in illegal deeds," the group said in a statement.
The alleged ringleader, Bahram Tabatabai, was one of those arrested. None have been charged with involvement in terrorism, though all remained in custody late Tuesday.
Tabatabai allegedly represented more than 300 people during asylum interviews before the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Authorities would not say how many successfully gained entry into the country.
Sixteen people were indicted for their involvement in the ring, although only 15 were arrested -- one was out of the country, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office. Another 14 were arrested for being in the country illegally and will be deported.
David Zebley, an agent for the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said Tabatabai pretended to be a Farsi translator at the hearings, enabling him to change answers given by clients to the INS officers.
Zebley said Tabatabai used a network of fake document suppliers. The sources allegedly provided documents including birth certificates, titles for automobiles, houses, land and businesses, letters from guarantors, passports, employment records, bank records and university diplomas.
In some cases, Tabatabai created new identities for clients who had criminal records or ties to subversive organizations, agents said. When asylum was requested, they allegedly invented stories of political oppression in their homeland, usually Iran.
Clients, the majority of them Iranians, allegedly were charged a minimum of $2,000 for Tabatabai's services. Those who got visas had to pay between $8,000 and $12,000, Zebley said.
Text of Clinton Transmittal Letter to Congress on Iran
Text of Clinton Transmittal Letter to Congress on Iran
WASHINGTON- Following is the text of a
transmittal letter from President Clinton on Iran:
TO THE CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES:
As required by section 401(c) of the National Emergencies Act, 50 U.S.C. 1641(c), section 204(c) of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), 50 U.S.C. 1703(c), and section 505(c) of the International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1985, 22 U.S.C. 2349aa-9(c), I transmit herewith a 6-month periodic report on the national emergency with respect to Iran that was declared in Executive Order 12957 of March 15, 1995.
WILLIAM J. CLINTON THE WHITE HOUSE,
March 15, 1999.
Islamic Iran Braces for Zoroastrian Fire Festival
THERAN, (Reuters) - Iran is preparing for the "festival of fire," an
ancient Zoroastrian feast held on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Iranian year.
Youth throughout the country have been massing dried bushes to set alight and firecrackers for Tuesday night's Chaharshanbe-Souri celebrations, which date back thousands of years to Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia.
The occasion is a cause of tension between Islamists, who see the ceremonies as pagan relics, and secular-minded Iranians, keen on preserving the highly popular pre-Islamic tradition.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, authorities have sought with little success to curb the festival, with some demanding that it be banned altogether.
However, in a first sign that officials may be ready to recognise at least aspects of the tradition, Iran's interior minister, Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari, has issued a statement praising the event, although calling for safer celebrations.
This prompted sharp criticism from a hardline newspaper.
"In addition to the dangers it poses, the festival is a superstitious tradition promoted by the shah's regime," said Jomhuri-ye Eslami, referring to Iran's monarch before the revolution.
The celebrations are source of genuine safety concerns due to injuries caused each year by increasingly destructive fireworks and the blazes expected to be started by bonfires.
Every year, state media warn of the dangers and police clash with young celebrants. Two years ago, dozens of people were detained during the event.
State television has in the past few days carried footage of destroyed buildings and the charred faces of people injured in the festivities.
The tradition has survived numerous political upheavals in Iran, including Islam's takeover 14 centuries ago. It has long been valued for promoting a spirit of love and friendship.
On the night of the festival, families leap over bonfires in order to be purified for the new year and dispel evil spirits. The night is also an occasion for family gatherings around colourful arrangements of nuts and fruits, symbols of life and man's relationship with nature.
2 Groups Appeal U.S. Designation as Terror Organizations
By Bill Miller and Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Two groups designated by the Clinton administration as foreign terrorist organizations have turned to the American courts for vindication, waging the most significant challenge yet to a 1996 antiterrorism law and the way the State Department designates U.S. enemies.
The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran and Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have hired prominent lawyers to take their cases to the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. They allege they were designated as terrorists by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in October 1997 based on a mostly secret record and with no advance notice or opportunity to respond.
The cases attack the constitutionality of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was passed to keep terrorist organizations from gaining a foothold in the United States. The two organizations are among 30 on the State Department's list, a designation that freezes the groups' assets in the United States, makes it a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison for Americans who provide them money and denies U.S. visas to group members.
The act was signed with much fanfare by President Clinton in April 1996 amid swelling concerns about the threat of terrorist bombings, hijackings, assassinations and biological warfare. It provided for quicker deportations of suspected alien terrorists, tougher penalties for terrorist crimes, increased enforcement by the FBI and the measure to keep organizations labeled as terrorist from raising money within the United States. From the start, civil libertarians complained that the law was extreme and prone to abuse--assertions being made by lawyers for the Mojahedin and Tamil Tigers, the only organizations fighting their designations in the courts.
The Mojahedin, formed in Iran in the 1960s, oppose Iran's clergy-based government and draw support from Iraq, where they maintain a military base. The Tamil Tigers, formed in 1976, are locked in a secessionist war against the government in Sri Lanka, which has a Sinhalese majority that the Tamils say discriminates against them.
Both groups insisted in court that they do not engage in terrorism, only acts of war with specific targets. The State Department maintains that both organizations have carried out assassinations, bombings and other actions that could threaten Americans at home and abroad.
Under the law, those designated as terrorist organizations have one recourse: They can ask the appellate court to review the administrative record to determine if the finding was unjust. Lawyers for the organizations said the groups have a constitutional right to due process, meaning a chance to be heard before the designations are made.
"We wanted to have a hearing where we would present our views," Jacob A. Stein, an attorney for the Mojahedin, said during a hearing on both cases earlier this month. "We hoped that after being given the views, the secretary would not make that designation. We were deprived of that right."
Former attorney general Ramsey Clark, representing the Tamil Tigers, said in court papers that the antiterrorism law is the product of hysteria, arguing that "the demagogic cry of terrorism" leads to repressive actions. He said labeling groups as terrorists is like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Stein and Clark contended that their groups were put on the list by Albright for political reasons, in what they called an abuse of the law. The Mojahedin claimed they were branded terrorists by Albright as a friendly overture to Iran. The Tamil Tigers claimed the United States favors the Sri Lankan government.
A similar argument was raised by a group of Palestinian activists who went to the Supreme Court to protest the U.S. government's efforts to deport them. The eight activists, associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, contended that they were being removed for political views. The Supreme Court ruled last month that illegal aliens have no constitutional right to assert selective enforcement as a defense against deportation. That ruling could cause problems for the Mojahedin and Tamil Tigers.
Justice Department lawyers defended the antiterrorism law, saying it was passed in a climate of rising concerns fueled by incidents such as the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103, the World Trade Center bombing and the poison-gassing of the Tokyo subway system. They said Congress sought to prohibit terrorist fund-raising in the United States to make it clear that the country would not be a "staging ground" for terrorist activities.
Because the organizations are foreign, they have no constitutional rights, the Justice Department argued. The government's lawyers said the State Department appropriately relied upon classified information, that much of it cannot be shared with the groups for security reasons and that Congress is not even required to give the organizations the opportunity for appellate review.
The three judges who heard the appeal--A. Raymond Randolph, Stephen F. Williams and James L. Buckley--repeatedly challenged Stein and Clark during the oral arguments, particularly on their claims of constitutional violations. Williams said the United States took similar measures against Iraq after the siege of Kuwait and remarked, "As a constitutional class, I'm just trying to figure out how this organization stands on a stronger basis than Iraq."
Stein and Clark argued that the law affects the constitutional rights of Americans who want to contribute to the organizations. But the judges said restrictions can be placed on Americans because of foreign policy concerns.
However, the judges also raised questions about a court's effectiveness in reviewing the State Department's decisions. Because foreign policy enters into the choices about whom to designate, and because the administrative record is built on evidence selected only by the State Department, the judges said the appellate review provided by the law appears limited.
Justice Department lawyers said the Tamil Tigers were responsible for the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the slaying of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 and a 1996 explosion at the headquarters of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka that killed 100 people. The group has many supporters in the United States, including some who filed a lawsuit in California claiming a right to keep providing donations.
The Mojahedin have been even more aggressive in waging a struggle for acceptance in Washington, with mixed results. They acquired some support in Congress, but were rebuffed by the White House and the State Department.
A State Department report in 1994 portrayed the group as a stooge of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and tainted by a long history of terrorism. The report said the Mojahedin "participated physically" in holding hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and are "known to have assassinated" at least five Americans in Iran while the shah was in power in the 1970s.
Damning as it was, however, that report stirred anger in Congress because the State Department did not interview anyone from the group in preparing it. Senior members of the House International Relations Committee--including Reps. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), who is now a senator--issued statements criticizing the State Department. They said Congress did not necessarily endorse the Mojahedin, but wanted enough information to decide whether to do so.