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Trial Begins for Iran Election Protesters

About 100 Iranian activists and political moderates went on trial Saturday to face charges related to massive protests following the controversial presidential election. The semi-official Fars news agency published images of defendants sitting in a packed Tehran courtroom, some handcuffed in pairs.

Former reformist vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi took the witness stand Saturday in a trial that is accusing key opposition figures of plotting to overthrow the government and fomenting violence.

Abtahi looked almost unrecognizable after having spent over a month in prison. He was dressed in gray pajamas and slippers as he took the witness stand.

Iranian TV said Abtahi admitted that opposition claims that the presidential elections had been rigged were "lies."

The Fars news agency reported that Abtahi denounced former presidents Mohammed Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for trying to "take revenge on [incumbent President Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad and the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei]."

Fars also reported that 100 defendants were on trial, showing pictures of them in the front rows of a packed courtroom, with police guards around them.

Iran analyst Mehrdad Khonsari of the London-based Center for Arab and Iranian Studies, argues that Saturday's trials are intended to frighten reformists into backing down in their challenge of the government:

"It's part and parcel of the regime's strategy to intimidate and scare the public into inaction and to use these trials as staging points for warning the elites within Iranian society not to get involved in any kind of activity aimed at discrediting or delegitimizing the government," he said. "The people who have been arrested, I think, will ultimately have to be set free, but the idea is to threaten them with a sentence that they would not necessarily implement, that would deter them from any further defiance of the state."

Despite the Iranian government's attempts to force opposition leaders leaders to back down, Khonsari thinks that the opposition movement "remains robust."

U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch says some prominent lawyers were arrested over the past weeks to prevent them from representing activists in court.

The group says authorities have used harsh interrogations and beatings in an effort to extract false confessions from detainees.

According to Fars, some of the major politicians appearing in court Saturday are former parliament vice speaker Behzad Nabavi and former government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh. The full list of defendants is not known.