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Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, by Roya Hakakian (2011) –

Many Americans – maybe most – understand that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution left that ancient nation with a regime more repressive than the one it ousted. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had promised, upon his return from exile, to be a gentle presence, a mere student of the Koran. Instead, he quickly became a mini-Stalin, viciously pursuing a long hit list of political enemies with the putative goal of “defending” Islam itself. Dissident students and defiant intellectuals who had been the very backbone of the revolution, resisted the theocratic repression just as strongly as the Shah’s secular tyranny. Those who failed to emigrate were jailed, tortured, killed. Those who did get out were largely the educated and well-to-do, but despite the relative ease with which they settled into welcoming communities around the world – ones in which it was possible to enjoy marvelous new political freedoms – many expat Iranians longed for their homeland and hoped that, with time and pressure from without, the reign of the theocrats would eventually crumble. They would then return home, went the dream, to the open and liberal Iran they had envisioned when the Shah was first toppled.

But pressure-from-without was not forthcoming. Iran had oil. Iran bought things, traded with the world. And Iran was prickly, not easy to boss around. When agents of Tehran murdered Persian/Kurdish activists and dissidents in France, India, Turkey, Austria, England, Switzerland, Sweden, the U.S., and elsewhere — grisly warnings to stay quiet and lay low — there was a tendency on the part of host countries to turn a blind eye, to ship captured killers back whence they came under the cover of night, perhaps in exchange for a hostage, more often simply to avoid diplomatic awkwardness and damage to commerce.

Roya Hakakian’s Assassins of the Turquoise Palace begins in the fusillade of machine-gun fire that would change all that.

In much simplified form, the book’s layout: late evening in the Fall of 1992, two armed Middle Eastern men burst into a small Berlin restaurant and blow away four figures of the Kurdish/Iranian opposition, leaving others wounded. The Persian community is shocked, but not surprised. The press is only as interested as it would be in any bloody headline-grabber until the next one comes along. Impassioned exiles-in-Germany – one, in particular, a survivor of the massacre – apply what pressure they can, clamoring that a German finger of accusation must point where it belongs: at the government in Tehran. A courageous, seasoned German prosecutor, under pressure from diplomatic officials to let the matter slide, studies the case to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to bring an indictment. After much turmoil and suspense, comes the criminal proceeding itself, where Hakakian’s emotionally and factually detailed story moves onto another plane – at least for this American.

Citizens of the United States are proud of the jury system we inherited from our British cousins. And why not? It distinguishes us from the rest of the world, where bewigged enforcers dispense justice and punishment from on high, where the law is the law: legislated, impervious to modification or interpretation by courts. How barbaric! How vulnerable to the whims of government! Thank heavens for the Constitution! For the wisdom of the common man!

Yes, but. Our system has its own rigidities. The Bill of Rights confers specific rights and procedures; it does not address anything so nebulous as a concept of “fairness.” As Adam Gopnik pointed out recently in an excellent New Yorker essay, “The Caging of America” (January 30, 2012):

…accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong.

Which isn’t to say our criminal justice system isn’t wonderful. It does suggest, though, that unlike Democracy, it isn’t necessarily “better than anything else that’s been tried.” We read all too often of criminals who “got off on a technicality,” and of prosecutorial misconduct that sends innocents to jail, even to the death chamber. No system is perfect.

(In case you, gentle reader, disagree with this assessment, Raymond Bonner’s highly readable Anatomy of Injustice (Borzoi, Knopf, 2012) might influence your opinion.)

The trial that occupies the second half of Assassins of the Turquoise Palace takes place in Berlin, beginning in 1992 and runs for over five years (!). It might as well be taking place on another planet, where up is down and hot is cold.  Judges in the German criminal justice system aren’t referees who maintain order and ensure that a strict set of rules is observed as lawyers from opposing sides duel before a jury of legally untutored citizens. These judges are very much a part of the proceedings, asking most of the questions and ultimately deciding the case. It’s a examination of facts combined with a barroom brawl, in which not everything goes, but where the level of decorum and orderliness, broken only by the occasional weeping witness or fervent “Objection, Your Honor!” to which we Yankees are accustomed, is largely absent. The free-for-all atmosphere is structured on the assumption that while a jury of just-plain-folks must be fed information very carefully, a judge – or panel of judges – can’t be “tainted” with incorrect procedures. Judges can decide for themselves whether hearsay has probative value, or whether a piece of evidence should be considered in the interests of fairness, no matter how it was acquired. Focus on simple fairness, or focus on statutory rights and procedures. Who’d have thought they could produce such different mechanisms for the pursuit of justice?

The military tribunal currently trying (or trying to try) Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other 9/11 suspects, in an attempt to put “fairness” over “process,” looks to be structured somewhat more like a German courtroom than an American one. U.S. legal experts have scoffed that a Federal judge would know how to control his courtroom, that a trial where suspects are free to flout the court’s authority is a mockery (link: http://nyti.ms/INrPEl).  We’ll see whether the military judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, can orchestrate a politically acceptable result.  For those who have read Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, Pohl’s approach is certainly more easily appreciated — if not approved — than for those who haven’t.

Lest anyone think “Assassins” is a dry treatise on Iranian politics and the distinctions between one criminal justice system and another – no. These elements are present and they are interesting if one is interested, as I was. But the book is, above all, a great read. The characters are nuanced, alive, their cultural subtleties made scrutable; the writing is fluid and energetic; the story crackles with drama and unexpected developments. That the events depicted are pertinent to today’s headlines and reveal a through-the-looking-glass version of what most Americans assume is the only true path to justice, is just icing on a very tasty cake.

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