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Tuesday, September 21, 1999 Published at 00:05 GMT 01:05 UK

World: Middle East

Iranian newspaper director 'guilty'

Conservatives fight back as the Austrian leader comes to boost President Khatami

The director of one of Iran's leading moderate newspapers, Neshat, has been found guilty of "insulting the sanctity and tenets of Islam", the official news agency Irna has reported.

Iran crisis
Iran's Press Court also found the newspaper director Latif Safari guilty of insulting the commander of the law enforcement force, inciting the public and students to riots and strike action and insulting the deputies of Iran's parliament.

The court jury unanimously ruled out the possibility of showing any leniency for the charges brought against Mr Safari, Irna said.

Neshat newspaper was closed down on 5 September for publishing criticism of Iran's penal system, which is derived from Islamic law.

[ image: The July unrest was sparked by the closure of another liberal paper, Salam]
The July unrest was sparked by the closure of another liberal paper, Salam
The paper called for an end to the death penalty and Iran's strict "eye-for-an-eye" law of retribution which was introduced after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

It also published an unprecedented open letter from an opposition leader asking Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to stay out of factional politics. It is illegal to question the Ayatollah's authority under Iranian law.

Conservatives expressed outrage at the publication and the case is being seen as the latest stage in the struggle between pro- and anti-reformers in Iran.

Press freedoms

Legislation liberalising the press introduced by pro-reform President Muhammad Khatami has been at the centre of an ideological struggle in Iran, which boiled over into serious street disturbances in July.

[ image: It is illegal to criticise the Supreme Leader]
It is illegal to criticise the Supreme Leader
Four pro-reform activists were recently reported to have been sentenced to death for their part in the riots.

Correspondents say the current case could result in a permanent ban against Neshat, along with a jail term and fine against its publisher.

News of the conviction came soon after Austria's President Thomas Klestil arrived in Tehran - the first EU head of state to visit Iran since the Islamic Revolution 20 years ago.

It also follows reports that 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying will face trial, although the head of Tehran's hardline revolutionary court said the espionage charges against them had already been proven.

The European Parliament has criticised Iran's human rights record and called for the release of the Iranian Jews.

Support for reform

President Klestil says he is in Iran to give support to President Khatami's reform programme.

He said: "The main goal of my visit is to develop bilateral ties and bring support for Mr. Khatami's reform policy.

"Our presence here aims to show that we hold this reform policy in high esteem and the importance of the Austrian delegation shows Austria's interest in its economic relations with Iran."

President Klestil is due to meet Ayatollah Khamenei on Tuesday - the first time the senior cleric has met a Western leader.

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