TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - Iran's top leader called on Monday for "cutting off the traitorous hands" of those implicated in a $2.6 billion fraud case described as the biggest financial scam in the country's history.
"People should know all these (responsible) will be pursued. ... God willing, the traitorous hands will be cut," said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state in Iran, in remarks broadcast on state TV.
Khamenei's phrasing alluded to the punishment of amputation, sometimes imposed by Iranian courts on repeat theft offenders.
The Iranian leader also said the media should not use the politically sensitive case to "strike at officials." However, some of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rivals within the conservative camp have accused one of his top allies of having connections to the accused.
The supreme leader normally tries to be perceived as a fatherly figure standing above the political fray, preventing different factions from attacking each other too fiercely.
In this case, he also appears concerned that allegations of fraud on such a massive scale will damage the credibility of the government in general.
Khamenei said there should be "no mercy" for the defendants, who allegedly used forged documents to obtain credit at one of Iran's top financial institutions, Bank Saderat, to purchase assets including major state-owned companies.
Twenty-two suspects including businessmen and bank officials have been arrested. One Iranian bank chief has resigned and left the country, and the chiefs of two more banks have been dismissed.
Iranian newspapers carry new details of the case and its repercussions every day, and politicians frequently accuse their rivals of connections to the defendants.
Khamenei urged the media not to sensationalize the case for political gain. "Maybe some people plan to misuse (the case). ... A group wants to use the situation to strike at officials" involved in the investigation, he said.
He added that if officials had listened to his previous warnings over possible financial corruption, the current crisis would probably not have happened. Khamenei has repeatedly raised the danger of fraud since Iran accelerated a policy of liberalization in recent years.
Iranian newspapers have blamed Iranian businessman Amir-Mansour Aria for masterminding the scam, which reportedly began in 2007, with activity dramatically increasing in the months before the scandal broke in September.
Aria heads a business empire that includes more than 35 companies involved in activities ranging from mineral water production and the importation of meat from Brazil to a soccer club.
Opponents of Ahmadinejad have claimed that Aria had links with Ahmadinejad's top ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Conservatives accuse Mashaei and others of trying to challenge the authority of Iran's theocracy.
Dozens of Ahmadinejad allies have been arrested in the past month in unrelated crackdowns that have effectively killed the political future for Mashaei, who was seen as a possible successor to Ahmadinejad in 2013.
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