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Iran Frees Some Detainees in New Year Gesture

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The Iranian government has released a handful of detainees, including several prominent journalists, according to opposition Web sites.  At the same time, the official Fars News agency reports two reformist newspapers, Etemaad and Irandokht, have been shut down.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders announced journalists Abdolreza Tajik, Behrang Tonkaboni, Rozbeh Karimi, Ali Hekmet, and Mashaallah Shamsolvaezin were released after weeks of incarceration.  Shamsolvaezin is the spokesman of the Iranian Journalists Association.

Top Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafaar Doulatabadi promised Sunday that many opposition detainees would be released for the Iranian new year Nowrouz, but warned of severe consequences for those that do not cooperate.

Another journalist and a blogger were also arrested in recent days, according to Reporters Without Borders, while two others received six-year prison sentences.

Opposition Web site Rah-e-Sabz also writes the government is calling for former prisoners to submit to new interrogations, in which they will be forced to admit to wrongdoing.  Those "admissions," it says, will later be published.

Analyst Mehrdad Khonsari of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London says the Iranian government believes it gained the upper hand after a February 11 rally marking the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution:

"With the [Iranian] new year coming up, it is their strategy to finely balance the carrot-and-stick approach and consolidate the kind of gains that they thought they had made on February 11 by appealing to the public and showing leniency, but at the same time making it quite clear that they are not willing to tolerate further breaches of discipline," he noted.

Alex Vatanka of Janes' Defense Analyst concurs with Khonsari, noting it is difficult to see any clear plan of attack in the approach of the Iranian government towards the opposition:

"I think it is kind of difficult to, at this stage, reach the conclusion that this hard-line faction that is currently running the state in Iran is in possession of some sort of blueprint about where to go from here," said Vatanka.  "Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad are saying 'come with us, stay within the Islamic Republic fold, and we will be lenient, and if you do not bad things will happen to you.'"

The Iranian parliament, meanwhile, is reported to be continuing its investigation of previous government crackdowns, amid lingering anger over reports of the abuse of prisoners at the Kahrizak detention center, and the ransacking of student dormitories at Tehran University.  A recent video shown by the BBC of student dormitories being attacked has reportedly ignited further outrage.

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