By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
Tehran Iran’s police chief, Hossein Sajedinia announced and defended a controversial decision to form a seven thousand strong undercover police service charged with enforcing morality codes and, reportedly, assisting regular police forces with criminal matters.
Domestic and international civil libertarians project an Orwellian abuse about to unfold in that a largely unseen monitoring system will encompass the Iranian capital and generate the continual worry of being arrested for ordinary acts the government deems objectionable.
I suspect that if the powers to be view this program to be successful, other municipalities throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran will soon follow, further repressing whatever freedom currently remains in their country.
Last week we featured an article announcing that Saudi Arabia decommissioned the arrest powers of its religious police force. Not to be outdone by a geopolitical rival Iran stepped up to further destroy the notion of liberty and individuals wanting to be left alone.
Chief Sajedinia claims that the undercover officers will meet strict predetermined criteria and will operate under the full supervision of the police department. Also, the police will coordinate all the forces actions with the judiciary. He expects that any abuses of power will be promptly addressed in the “shortest possible amount of time.” In attempting to dispel worry of the religious police focusing solely on issues such as women’s veils the chief warranted that “moral security” is not only concerned with clothing issues but crimes such as drug abuse, theft, smuggling and street gangs. He attempted to assure his audience that the new force would not become a rogue gang of enforcers harassing ordinary citizens.
Beyond the obvious civil rights issues inherent with the establishment of a religious police force I have grave concerns about such an organization in any form. I suspect training and pay will be lax and professionalism low. In the short term the line between legitimate policing and political harassing will blur and a type of street justice might evolve, due to indifference by professional police officials and possibly enabling actions by political or religious officials.
A force of that size also has the potential to become self-serving and difficult to dislodge if it becomes entrenched in the bureaucracy. From there, factionalism could bring the religious police under one branch of the government (clergy), and the regular police services align with another (secular/legislative). In this situation the Iranian citizenry might find itself in the middle of two rival police factions that are used as political tools against opponents. We saw a similar analog of this within New York City in 1857 with the rivalries between the state incorporated Metropolitan Police Force and the NYC legacy department the Municipals. In the NYC example, the Metropolitans were a response by the legislature to address endemic corruption of the city’s police force which the state legislature and governor ordered to be disbanded. Loyalists to the mayor remained with the Municipals and rivalries turned for the worst where even judges were sympathetic toward one force at the expense of the other. Of course, the ordinary citizens fell victim to the impasse.
A further concern stems from watching the unrest during past Iranian elections where dissenters and supporters of reformist candidates were attacked by plainclothes toughs hired by those supporting the status quo, many of whom were discovered to be government employees or police. The undercover nature of these thugs makes it easier for government to abuse individuals with a measure of greater impunity since identification is not easily available as is the case with a uniformed police officer. On the other side, it would take little for miscreants to proffer they are members of the religious police and then exploit citizens at will.
The belief of undercover religious police abound certainly will sow mistrust among citizens who when faced with strangers need to take steps to ensure ultra-compliance is maintained in public because any stranger might be of the religious police.
Surprisingly, there was a glimmer of hope that there will be criticism of such a police force at higher levels of government. President Hassan Rouhani is critical of the new force. Rouhani expressed indirectly during a cabinet meeting,
“We have to be fatherly toward the people. Every morning someone wakes up and there is a new regulation, a new framework. One person wants to control the people secretly. Another person wants to control people openly. Do we have the right? The freedom of the people cannot be limited unless through the law. Nothing else can control the freedom of the people. The administration cannot do it. The judiciary cannot do it. Only the law. Without the law we do not have the right to interfere in the private or public lives of people. The prophet said that the ruler must be the father of the nation.”
Certainly it would have been better to not enable a religious police force than foster its creation and dissolve it later. But when much of Iran is governed by religious interests, the clergy having its own police force likely will prove to be an enticing tool for enforcing its directives and answering only to itself.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.