TEHRAN -- The Iranian Supreme Court has overturned the murder convictions of six members of a prestigious state militia who killed five people they considered "morally corrupt."
The reversal, in an infamous five-year-old case from Kerman, in central Iran, has produced anger and controversy, with lawyers calling it corrupt and newspapers giving it prominence.
"The psychological consequences of this case in the city have been great and a lot of people have lost their confidence in the judicial system," Nemat Ahmadi, a lawyer associated with the case, said in a telephone interview.
Three lower court rulings found all the men guilty of murder. Their cases had been appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned the guilty verdicts. The latest decision, made public this week, reaffirms that earlier reversal.
"The objection by the relatives of the victims is dismissed and the ruling of this court is confirmed," the court said in a one-page verdict.
The ruling may still not be final, however, because a lower court in Kerman can appeal the decision to the full membership of the Supreme Court. More than 50 Supreme Court judges would then take part in the final decision.
According to the Supreme Court's earlier decision, the killers, who are members of the Basiji Force, volunteer vigilantes favored by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, considered their victims morally corrupt and, according to Islamic teachings and Iran's Islamic penal code, their blood could therefore be shed.
The last victims, for example, were a young couple engaged to be married who the killers said were walking together in public.
Members of the Basiji Force are known for attacking reformist politicians and pro-democracy meetings. Ahmadinejad was a member of the force but the Supreme Court judges who issued the ruling are not considered to be specifically affiliated with the force.
Iran's Islamic penal code, which is a parallel system to its civic code, says murder charges can be dropped if the accused can prove the killing was carried out because the victim was morally corrupt.
This is true even if the killer identified the victim mistakenly as corrupt. In that case, the law requires "blood money" to be paid to the family. Every year in Iran, a senior cleric determines the amount of blood money required in such cases. This year it is $40,000 if the victim is a Muslim man, and half that for a Muslim woman or a non-Muslim.
In an interview with the Iranian Student News Agency, Mohammad Sadegh Al-e-Eshagh, a Supreme Court judge who did not take part in this case, sought yesterday to discourage vigilante killings, saying those carried out without a court order should be punished.
At the same time, he laid out examples of moral corruption that do permit bloodshed, including armed banditry, adultery by a wife, and insults to the Prophet Mohammed.
"The roots of the problems are in our laws," said Mohammad Seifzadeh, a lawyer and a member of the Association for Defenders of Human Rights in Tehran. "Such cases happen as long as we have laws that allow the killer to decide whether the victim is corrupt or not."