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Monday, 26 June, 2000, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
Iranian publisher defies court
Young Iranians oppose newspaper closures
Newspaper closures have sparked protests in Iran
The publisher of a banned pro-reform newspaper in Iran has refused to appear before a powerful religious court.

The conservative Special Court for the Clergy (SCC) shut the paper, Bayan, on Sunday, and summoned its publisher, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi to appear before the court.

But Mr Mohtashemi, a former interior minister seen as a founder of the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, has said the court is illegal. He could now face arrest.

Ali Akbar Mohtashemi
Mohtashemi: Says the court has no power over the press

Bayan was one of the few remaining newspapers in Iran which supported the reform policies of President Mohammad Khatami, after the closure of nearly 20 pro-reform newspapers two months ago.

"I am convinced that no offence has been committed," Mr Mohtashemi was quoted as saying.

"The SCC has summoned me several times, but I consider this court is illegal, at least with regard to media questions."

A BBC correspondent says Mr Mohtashemi's stance is a direct challenge to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who appointed the court to deal with offences committed by clerics.

I consider this court is illegal, at least with regard to media questions

Ali Akbar Mohtashemi

Mr Mohtashemi does hold the clerical rank of hojatoleslam, but he says issues relating to alleged offences by newspapers should be heard by an ordinary court.

"If a qualified court is convened with a jury and lawyers, then I will appear before it," he said.

He has already ignored at least one summons from the SCC, which was issued last month.

Islamic principles

The court has defended its action in closing Bayan, saying its main duty was to uphold the country's Islamic principles.

President Khatami
President Khatami: Most papers supporting his reforms have been closed

It has already acted against other newspaper publishers. Last year, another former interior minister, Abdollah Nouri, was sentenced to five years in prison for insulting Islamic values in his paper, Khordad.

But the move against Bayan came only a week after Iran's reformist parliament had appealed to the judiciary to take a more tolerant approach towards freedom of expression in Iran.

Despite Mr Mohtashemi's reformist credentials, he is respected by some conservatives for his past role.

He was a close aide to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, and is widely believed to have helped to found Hezbollah in Lebanon, when he was Iranian ambassador to Syria in the early 1980s.

His paper, Bayan, was launched at the beginning of December by the staff of the reformist daily Salam, which had itself been closed last July.

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See also:

25 Jun 00 | Middle East
Reformist newspaper closed in Iran
18 Jun 00 | Middle East
Iran MPs demand press freedom
16 May 00 | Middle East
Another Iranian paper closed
27 May 00 | Middle East
Iran parliament enters new era
29 Apr 00 | Media reports
Clampdown - the cartoonists' eye
28 Apr 00 | Middle East
Rafsanjani slams Iran's liberal media
26 Apr 00 | Middle East
How far will Iran's conservatives go?
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