Iran on Saturday will open the much-anticipated trial of 18 men accused of carrying out the brutal 1998 serial killings of several leading dissidents and intellectuals that shocked the nation.
The assassinations, blamed on a network of "rogue" agents within the secret police, and the controversy that has dogged the case have underscored the still explosive political tension in the country.
The latest bombshell came Wednesday, when families of the victims reportedly dismissed their lawyers and announced they would not attend the trial, being held in a Tehran military court.
The surprise announcement was merely the latest twist in a two-year ordeal, including the reported suicide of the lead suspect and allegations that leading figures in the clerical regime were involved in the murders.
The drama began in November 1998, when secular opposition leader Dariush Foruhar and his wife, Parvaneh, were stabbed to death in their Tehran apartment.
Within weeks, three leading writers outspoken in their demands for greater freedom of expression in Islamic Iran -- Majid Sharif, Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Pouyandeh -- were also found murdered.
The apparently political killings shocked Iranian society and dealt a serious setback to President Mohammad Khatami's efforts to rebuild Iran's image abroad.
The shock only increased when authorities announced that a circle of "rogue" intelligence agents had carried out the killings, but without the knowledge of top intelligence ministry officials.
Then, in June 1999, the agent named as the mastermind behind the assassinations, Said Emami, was reported to have killed himself in prison by drinking a bottle of hair remover.
Amid the firestorm of controversy and public outrage, journalist Akbar Ganji then published a book and a series of articles alleging former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was linked to the murders.
With Saturday's trial drawing near, recent weeks have seen several other twists and turns that have highlighted the political sensitivity surrounding the case.
A memorial service for the Foruhars at a Tehran mosque last month turned ugly when police intervened with clubs to stop protesters from demonstrating after the ceremony.
Meanwhile, Ganji, now in prison himself, used a court appearance several weeks ago to accuse former intelligence minister Ali Fallahian, as well as a senior judge, of also having a hand in the assassinations.
Last week a lawyer for the families of Mokhtari and Pouyandeh, Nasser Zarafshan, was jailed after claiming other people had also been killed and that the assassinations had been ordered by religious decree.
Then, on Wednesday, the military judiciary announced that the kin of the victims had dismissed their legal teams and would not be attending the long-awaited trial.
It said no reason had been given for the decision, but one of the lawyers, Ahmad Bashiri, was quoted in the Doran-e Emrouz paper Thursday as saying the families believe they will "get nothing out of this trial."
Three of the 18 suspects will be tried as the principals, with the remainder considered as accomplices.
The military court has yet to announce whether it will agree to requests that the public be allowed to attend the trial -- TEHRAN (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)