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Courts in authoritarian regimes

Some readers may know that I have an occasional interest in the role of courts in authoritarian regimes. There is a wonderful quote in today's NYTimes from Iranian "opposition" leader Mehdi Karroubi, who has been threatened with trial at a special court for clergy. The concept of this special court is itself interesting: the court is used as a device to maintain cohesion within the dictatorial class, somewhat similar to Robert Barros' found in his study of the Chilean constitutional court under Pinochet. The idea here is that constitutions can be used by authoritarian regimes to coordinate the disparate interests of the members of the ruling class.

But Karroubi's quote, copied below, illustrates the additional idea that because of their public nature, courts can be used to rally support for the opposition, even in cases that they lose. Karroubi says: "I am not only unworried about this court .... I wholeheartedly welcome it since I will use it to express my concerns regarding the national and religious beliefs of the Iranian people and the ideas of Imam Khomeini, and clearly reveal those who are opposed to these concerns.” Courts are, as Tamir Moustafa and others have observed, double-edged swords.

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