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Iran's morals squads crack down after polls

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Iran, February 29, 2000 (Reuters) - Iran's morals squads have gone on the warpath against illegal satellite dishes and free-spirited young people in what is widely seen as a hardline response to the reformists' victory at the polls.

In a series of seemingly coordinated actions in the days since the February 18 polls, police and units of the Islamic Basij militia have stepped up raids on apartment blocks in search of satellite receivers.

They have also hauled young men and women from restaurants, cafes and shopping malls, accusing them of violating the strict Islamic dress codes or fraternising with the opposite sex.

The raids have been centred in affluent north Tehran, a hot- bed of reformist sentiment, prompting residents to see the hands of the defeated conservatives behind the crackdown.

Feeding those fears was an open call for revenge attacks on Tehran's middle class, many of whom voted for broad reform within the existing Islamic system.

"Our brothers in the Basij and police...must increase their moral, social and cultural enforcement and carry out Islamic punishments precisely, so the middle class feels fed up and believes the reformists are incompetent," proclaimed the hardline Jebheh magazine.

"This violence must not be turned into a perpetual daily event but must take place on special days with full force, swiftly and surely."

SATELLITE BAN TARGETED BY REFORMERS

The leading pro-reform coalition, led by President Mohammad Khatami's brother, coasted to victory on a platform of expanded social, cultural and political freedoms.

Among their promises were repeal of the ban on satellite dishes, barred under strict regulations to shut out foreign cultural influence, and an end to state interference in citizens' private lives.

But at the up-scale Golestan shopping mall, teeming with young people, shoppers said police harassment had picked up since the elections, in which reformers won 29 of Tehran's 30 seats in the next parliament.

"I was arrested last week," said Youssi, sitting in a cafe with three classmates. "Three soldiers in camouflage took me to a back alley and searched me. They hit me when I protested."

Along Jordan Avenue residents said plain-clothes units late last week moved in to seize satellite TV systems.

"They went door to door in our apartment building, searching for dishes and taking them all away," one resident told Reuters.

Similar raids were reported at the weekend in other neighbourhoods.

An Italian restaurant popular with young people was also raided, and dozens of young men and women were carted away in police wagons.

"One minute we were eating, and the next the police were there," said one witness, who was dining with his wife and children. "They took them all away."

Manager Tahmesab Ehiapour said on Monday night he had taken pains to ensure that boys and the girls, most of them there for a classmate's birthday party, sat at separate tables. But police detained him, too, before a judge set him free with a fine.

Such raids had become less common in recent months, as the gradual liberalisation under President Khatami took root.

But the heightened tensions of the election campaign saw Iran's deep factional divisions increasingly cast in cultural terms.

Conservative seminarians in the holy Shi'ite Moslem city of Qom held pre-election rallies to condemn Khatami's cultural polices and demand renewed restrictions on the press, while hardline candidates warned of a threat to Iran's Islamic values.