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The list of Iran's heinous crimes against humanity is certainly a long one. As one of the principal members of the Axis of Evil™, the Islamic fundamentalist state is doubtless guilty of developing nuclear and chemical weapons, giving succour to al-Qaeda, fomenting holy war against the West and cruelty to defenceless animals.

One thing it cannot, though, be accused of is Internet censorship. That's if president Mohammad Khatami is to be believed, who last week used the World Summit on the Information Society to paint a pretty picture of the democratic right of Iranians to surf with gay abandon.

It is not in fact the case that the Iranian authorities block access to more than 10,000 sites, but rather a mere 240 "not compatible with Islam", as Khatami puts it.

Furthermore, Khatami claims that: "Even political websites that are openly opposed to the Iranian Government ... are available to the Iranian people."

This will come as great relief to the hundreds of bloggers who beseiged WSIS forums to bemoan their treatment at the hands of the Iranian government.

Earlier this year, journo Sina Motallebi got himself banged up for running a blog featuring press interviews. He had previously been a writer for reformist paper Hayat-e-No until that was closed down.

This brings into question somewhat Khatami's claim that "we are not censoring criticism. Criticism is OK".

Which is just as well, really, because Iran's constitution - drafted after the Shah's demise - is fairly explicit on the matter of civil liberties:

Article 22: The dignity, life, property, rights, residence, and occupation of the individual are inviolate, except in cases sanctioned by law.
Article 23: The investigation of individuals' beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.
Article 24: Publications and the press have freedom of expression except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public. The details of this exception will be specified by law.
Article 25: The inspection of letters and the failure to deliver them, the recording and disclosure of telephone conversations, the disclosure of telegraphic and telex communications, censorship, or the willful failure to transmit them, eavesdropping, and all forms of covert investigation are forbidden, except as provided by law.
Article 26: The formation of parties, societies, political or professional associations, as well as religious societies, whether Islamic or pertaining to one of the recognized religious minorities, is permitted provided they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic republic. No one may be prevented from participating in the aforementioned groups, or be compelled to participate in them.

Readers will note the handy "except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public" get-out clause - a neat piece of forward thinking by the constitution's authors. To illustrate how useful this is in practice, here is a transcript of a recent Iranian cabinet meeting:

Mullah 1: I really think this blogging thing is getting out of hand.
Mullah 2: I agree. Here's one critisising the standard of rubbish collections in Tehran.
Mullah 3: Right, get me the Revolutionary Guard on the blower.
Mullah 1: Hold on a minute, what about article 24 of the constitution?
Mullah 3: Nah, this is clearly offensive to the fundamental principles of Islam.
Mullah 2: You're right. All those in favour of summary imprisonment, a bit of torture and a public flogging? Carried unanimously.

Perhaps this is a little unfair to the poor old Iranians, who have spent the last 30 years walking a political tightrope. Once universally reviled by a West who armed Saddam Hussein to fight a war against it, Iran later found itself rather more positively viewed when the Iraqi leader fell from grace. Then, no sooner had Saddam taken an early Ba'ath, the Persians were immediately promoted to the Premiership of international terror states, vying with strongly-fancied Sudan and Syria for the honour of being the next recipient of the "Allied Carpet Bombing Cup".

This does not excuse Iran's record on human rights, called by Amnesty International a "spiral of human rights violations".

As for president Mohammad Khatami and his claims of limited web censorship, we question this assertion in the time-honoured local fashion: "You're having a bloody laugh, aincha?" ®

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