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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 17:38 GMT
Iran's president criticises death sentence
Iranian students hold up a picture of condemned lecturer Hashem Aghajari
There have been daily protests on campuses
Iran's reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, has spoken out against the death sentence given to a university lecturer for criticising the country's Islamic clergy.

Mr Khatami described the death sentence handed down to Hashem Aghajari, a prominent reformist and ally of the president, as "inappropriate".

Hashem Aghajari in 2000
Hashem Aghajari criticised the Islamic clergy

"Such a verdict should never have been issued and I hope that this issue will soon be resolved," Mr Khatami was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA. "I personally do not accept such practices."

But in a defiant statement issued through is lawyer, Mr Aghajari said he was prepared to die and that he will not appeal against his sentence.

"If the head of the judiciary thinks that this verdict is fair, he should apply it," lawyer Saleh Nikbakht quoted Mr Aghajari as writing in response to his sentence.

The conservative-dominated judiciary has defended the verdict as "justified".

But thousands of Iranian students have been holding demonstrations in support of Mr Aghajari.

Even some conservative elements have expressed unease over his sentencing, with some hard-line student groups saying the punishment did not correspond to the accusations against him.

Iranian student leader Saeed Razavi at a protest
Students made speeches and chanted slogans
Mr Aghajari was convicted of apostasy - renunciation of his religion - for remarks he made in an address in the western Iranian city of Hamedan, calling for reform within the Islamic clergy.

There has been widespread international criticism of the sentence.

The latest came on Tuesday, when US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the trial and the "extraordinarily harsh" sentence represented "a breach of accepted international standards of due process".

Defiance

Mr Aghajari made clear his willingness to die in the statement issued by his lawyer on Wednesday.

"Twenty years ago, when I was on the front... during the Iran-Iraq war, I was already ready to be a martyr."

If the judiciary had doubts about the sentence, "they should do the necessary [and cancel the verdict]", he said.


Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mohammed Khatami
CONSERVATIVES:
Leader: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Power: The real power in Iran. Controls the hard-line Guardians Council, which approves all laws, the judiciary and armed forces
Where they stand: Committed to Islamic revolution. Opposed to any reduction in their powers and normalisation of relations with the US

REFORMISTS:
Leader: President Mohammed Khatami
Power: Control the parliament and enjoy widespread popular support
Where they stand:
Back greater democracy, reducing the power of the Guardians Council, and reform to the legal system


Mr Aghajari's lawyer said he would try to convince his client to appeal, the AFP news agency reported.

The judiciary's public relations office, in a statement carried by AFP, said the judiciary "is following its normal course" and that without an appeal, the sentence could not be reconsidered.

"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?"

"Do these comments, repeated by the accused a number of times during his trial, not justify such a verdict by a believing and Muslim judge?"

BBC regional affairs analyst Roger Hardy says the real crime of Mr Aghajari - a history lecturer - is that he questioned the right of the clergy to rule.

He says Mr Khatami could not remain silent - the reformist movement that looks to him for leadership is incensed by the case.

And Mr Aghajari may yet appeal, our analyst says, since some of Iran's most senior political figures clearly feel the affair is damaging the country's stability at a time when the region is bracing itself for a possible US-led war against Iraq.

In a message on Monday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, criticised the government and parliament - which are run by the reformers - as well as the judiciary, which remains in the hands of hard-line conservatives.

The BBC's Jim Muir, in Iran, says he may have been trying to encourage feuding politicians to set aside their differences by effectively banging their heads together.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Matt Prodger
"The lecturer refuses to appeal and says he is prepared to die"


See also:

12 Nov 02 | Middle East
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