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Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 21:45 GMT
Iranian academic sentenced to death
Hashem Aghajari speaking at Tehran University in 1999
Aghajari is a strong ally of President Khatami

A liberal journalist and academic, Hashem Aghajari, has been sentenced to death for apostasy - the renunciation of his belief - according to Iranian reports.

He was arrested in August after a speech in which he called for reform within the Islamic clerical establishment.

Some hard-line clerics had publicly demanded the death sentence, comparing Aghajari to the British author Salman Rushdie, who was the subject of a death order or fatwa issued by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Mr Aghajari's lawyer said the death sentence was passed by the court in Hamedan, the western Iranian city where the liberal academic and journalist made his offending speech earlier this year, and where his prosecution has been carried out over recent months.


They may put me in jail or assassinate me but they will achieve nothing from this

Hashem Aghajari
speaking before his sentence
The death verdict was issued on charges of apostasy and insulting the imams of early Islam. On other charges, Mr Aghajari was sentenced to 74 lashes, 8 years in jail, and a 10-year ban on teaching activities - penalties that will clearly prove academic if the graver sentence is carried out.

The sentences have not yet been officially conveyed to the defence; once they are, there is a 20-day period during which appeals can be lodged.

'Optimistic'

Hashem Aghajari's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, was optimistic that what he called this "strong and harsh" sentence would be overturned by the Supreme Court on appeal.

He pointed out that a number of senior religious figures, albeit at the liberal end of the clerical spectrum, had ruled that there was nothing culpably blasphemous about Aghajari's speech, in which he called for an end to "blind obedience" to clerical decrees.

Iranian conservatives
Hard-line clerics were outraged by Aghajari's speech
But other, hard-line clerics were outraged by Aghajari's criticism of the clerical establishment, and some have said that the death sentence was the only possible punishment.

Hashem Aghajari is a war veteran who lost a leg in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. He belongs to a left-wing reformist political group, the Islamic Revolutionary Mujahidin Organisation, which has fully supported him.

Reformists see his prosecution as the latest in a long line of moves against liberal figures by the hard-line judiciary. His case has become a cause celebre in both political and religious circles.

Some of his students at Tehran University staged a three-day strike in protest at his arrest and prison conditions.

There was concern that he was not receiving adequate treatment for an infection of his leg wound. The IRMO also issued a statement calling on the prison authorities to guarantee his safety, following reports that he had been attacked by inmates at the Hamedan prison.

Similar case

Aghajari's case is similar to that of a liberal cleric, Hassan Yusefi-Eshkevari, who was arrested over two years ago after taking part in a controversial reformist conference in Berlin.

He too was condemned to death for apostasy, by a special clerical court. But the sentence was later quashed on appeal. After a series of appeals and revisions, he is currently under a seven-year jail sentence which he is still contesting.

The way Yusefi-Eshkevari's case was handled makes it seem unlikely that the death sentence on Hashem Aghajari will actually be carried out.

If it were to be, it would cause a political furore between reformists and hard-liners at an already critical moment in their struggle for power within Iran's Islamic system.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jim Muir in Tehran
"Some have said that the death sentence was the only possible punishment"
See also:

02 Nov 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
27 Oct 02 | Middle East
29 Sep 02 | Middle East
24 Oct 02 | Business
17 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
24 Oct 02 | Middle East
08 Oct 02 | Middle East
21 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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