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Saturday, 9 November, 2002, 20:52 GMT
Iran death sentence angers reformists
Hashem Aghajari
Hashem Aghajari: Sentenced to death after reform calls

The death sentence passed on a liberal academic by a court in Iran this week has caused a storm of protest in Iranian reformist circles, as well as stirring widespread international concern.

Hashem Aghajari was convicted of apostasy for remarks he made in an address in the western Iranian city of Hamedan, calling for reform within the Islamic clergy.

The front pages of many Tehran newspapers reflected the predictable outrage that the death sentence has provoked among reformists here.

President Khatami
Aghajari is an ally of Iranian President Khatami
Many carried a statement from the head of the parliamentary judicial and legal committee, Nasser Qavvami - a reformist - who said he had read the comments attributed to Mr Aghajari, and found nothing in them to justify even a prison sentence, far less death.

"The issuing of such verdicts by the judiciary has damaged the credibility of the judicial system, and the image of the Shia clerical establishment," he said.

Reflecting concern at international reaction, another reformist paper said the death sentence and the jailing of other liberal figures, was taking place at a time when even Saddam Hussein was releasing his political prisoners.

International condemnation

"The revolution should not eat its own children," the daily Ettemad said in an editorial.

The US State Department had earlier issued a statement condemning the verdict as "a breach of accepted international standards of due process", and vowing to stand "with the people of Iran in their quest for greater freedom, prosperity, judicial due process and the rule of law."

Canada was among other countries expressing concern. But the Iranian Foreign Ministry dismissed such interventions as "unacceptable interference in Iran's internal affairs," and said they could complicate the case.


At such a sensitive time for the country, the officials in charge should change their way of dealing with people before it is too late

Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri
Hashem Aghajari is a war veteran with an impeccable Islamic revolutionary record. He lost both a leg and a brother in the 1980-88 conflict with Iraq.

One of the most ringing denunciations of his death sentence came from Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a senior cleric who is currently under house arrest in the holy city of Qom for criticising the way things are being run.

In a statement, he said that if anybody had wanted to deal a blow to Islam and the Shia clergy, the "harsh and unjustified" death sentence on Mr Aghajari was the best possible way to do it.

Casting doubt on the religious validity of the sentence, he accused "a minority in the country of toying with the lives and reputations of others, in order to preserve their own power and positions".

"Those who are...projecting a harsh image of Islam, and are thereby turning the younger generation of our country away from Islam and religion, must answer before divine justice for their deeds," the Grand Ayatollah said.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i
There are hopes that Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i will quash the sentence
"At such a sensitive time for the country, the officials in charge should change their way of dealing with people before it is too late," he added.

"Rather than making enemies, they should be taking steps towards national accord."

Ayatollah Montazeri was Ayatollah Khomeini's designated successor as Supreme Leader in the 1980s, but was disgraced shortly before Khomeini's death in 1988.

He retains considerable religious authority despite being put under house arrest four years ago after issuing a statement questioning the powers being exercised by the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i.

Even some conservatives seemed embarrassed at the death sentence on Hashem Aghajari.

One of their leading commentators, Amir Mohebian, expressed the conviction that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamen'i, would intervene to quash the verdict.

One of the toughest hard-line commentators, Hossein Shariatmadari, conceded that the harshness of the death sentence had played into the hands of the reformists.

In a rare criticism of the judiciary, he cast doubt on the contention that someone with Hashem Aghajari┐s background could have insulted the Prophet Mohammad, a crime in Islam automatically attracting the death penalty.

"In view of this golden opportunity given to the (reformist) trend by the judiciary, it must be concluded that the judiciary issued the sentence without any political consideration, because otherwise this golden opportunity and big present would certainly not have been given to the so-called reformist spectrum," he wrote in the afternoon daily Keyhan.

See also:

07 Nov 02 | Middle East
02 Nov 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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