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Iran death sentence kindles revolt

Iran death sentence kindles revolt

Author: Miranda Eeles
Publication: The Times, UK
Date: November 14, 2002

President Khatami of Iran stoked growing tensions between the country's hardline judiciary and reformists yesterday, when he condemned the death sentence imposed on a liberal academic for criticizing the Islamic faith.

Breaking his silence over the case of Hashem Aghajari, which has pitted reformists against conservatives, Mr Khatami was quoted as saying: "Such a verdict should never have been issued and I hope this issue will soon be resolved. The death penalty is not applicable and will not be applied."

His comments, reported by the state news agency Irna, came on the fifth day of demonstrations by university students who have been gathering on campuses across the country, scenes not witnessed since protests in 1999. Yesterday it was the turn of students at Amir Kabir University in Tehran and at the Persian Gulf University in Bushehr.

The dispute centers on a speech made by Professor Aghajari in June saying that each new generation should be able to interpret the Islamic faith on its own. He also criticised the clerical establishment for considering the existing interpretations as sacred.

He was convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad and for questioning the clergy's interpretation of Islam. Last week he was told he had been sentenced to death. Chanting slogans in support of the condemned man, and standing in front of a poster of Mr Aghajari with a noose around his neck, speakers extolled free speech and denounced poisonous elements of the regime for stopping the country from moving forward.

"We actually see the judge's verdict as a direct insult to the university, to the students, to the teachers. If something outrageous like this happens, people won't like this, they will take to the streets, just like they did two years ago," said Hassan Motazavi, 21, a mechanical engineering student.

The hardline judiciary defended its decision yesterday to impose the death penalty. In a statement released by their public relations office, the judges said: "How can one defend someone who claims to be a Muslim but casts doubt on the principles of the religion ... and qualifies as monkeys those who follow religious dignitaries?"

But in a defiant challenge to the courts, Professor Aghajari, a history lecturer and Iran Iraq war veteran with impeccable revolutionary credentials, has refused to appeal against -his sentence, saying he was "ready to die". In a letter to his lawyer, he said: "Twenty years ago, when I was on the front ... during the Iran-Iraq war, I was already ready to be a martyr. If the head of the judiciary thinks that this verdict is fair, he should apply it."

In many right-wing papers commentators have also denounced the verdict, saying it has played into the hands of the reformers.

On Monday night Ayatollah Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, in an apparent reference to Professor Aghajari's penalty, called on judges to pay attention to the sentences they hand down. He also asked the feuding politicians to end their differences.

If they failed to do so, he added, he might have to turn to "popular forces" to tackle Iran's problems. "Popular forces" are taken to be the Revolutionary Guard, who are ideologically committed to the Islamic revolution.

Many see his intervention not only as a warning to the President and his reformist allies but as a threat to the students not to leave their campuses and take their demonstrations to the streets, as they did two years ago when security forces, killed several people in a week of student unrest.

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