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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 16:59 GMT
Iran to review academic's verdict
Students carry a wounded man from university protests
Aghajari's sentence led to widespread student protests

The Iranian judiciary has announced that the controversial death sentence for apostasy passed by a provincial court on a liberal university lecturer is to be reviewed.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Khamenei: Issued review order more than one week ago
The move could help take the steam out of protests triggered by the death sentence dealt to Hashem Aghajari, a handicapped war veteran, although student demonstrations had already been called off under official pressure.

The judiciary had earlier been accused of resisting an order from the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to review the case.

Now, it seems to have fallen belatedly into line.

'Defying wishes'

The announcement that the case would be reviewed came after a meeting of judiciary officials in Tehran.

Hossein Sadeghi, the judiciary spokesman, said the review would be undertaken in response to the order issued by Ayatollah Khamenei more than a week ago.

This seemed to be a sign that the judiciary - a stronghold of hard-line conservatives - was backing down.

Earlier, its chief, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, had appeared to be defying the wishes of the Supreme Leader, whose word is normally seen as an imperative.

Rejecting the notion that "expediency" should intrude into judicial cases, the judiciary chief said that the Aghajari case would take its normal course, which would ultimately in any case involve a mandatory review of the death sentence by the Supreme Court.

In other words, no special action would be taken in response to the Leader's order.

Next step unclear

That provoked angry protests from reformist leaders.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mohammed Khatami
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

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

They accused the hardline judiciary of disobeying the leader, in contrast to the reformist-dominated parliament, which bowed to a similar intervention last year and shelved a new press law it was discussing.

But it remains unclear what practical difference the judiciary announcement will make in handling Aghajari's case.

The spokesman did not say whether steps would be taken to speed it up.

The file on the case is still down in the provincial city of Hamedan, where the trial took place.

In theory, it should remain there until 2 December, the end of the 20-day period during which the defendant can appeal - something Hashem Aghajari has so far insisted he will not do.

The judiciary spokesman said he did not know when the file would be transferred to Tehran for review.

He added that "stirring up trouble over cases was detrimental to the judicial process" - a reference to the protests triggered by the death sentence.

Hardline outrage

They appear to have abated, at least for the time being, with students abiding by an official ban on any further demonstrations such as those which have been staged on many campuses in Tehran and elsewhere over the past two weeks.

Hashem Aghajari
Some hardliners called Aghajari "Iran's Salman Rushdie"

Aghajari's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, told BBC News Online the defence wanted all the verdicts against his client quashed, not just the death sentence.

On lesser charges, he had also been condemned to eight years in jail, 74 lashes, and a 10-year ban on teaching.

Aghajari was accused of apostasy after an address he made in Hamedan in June, in which he called for a more critical approach to Islam, rather than blind obedience by the faithful to their clerics.

Hardline clerics and their supporters were outraged by Aghajari's remarks that Muslims should not "ape" their religious leaders.

Some called him Iran's Salman Rushdie, and demanded that he should die.

Reformist setbacks

The judiciary's apparent backdown may be seen by some as a victory for the reformists - but they remain pressured, divided and weak.

Abbas Abdi
The arrest of Abdi was "intimidation", Iranian reformists say

Nobody believed the death sentence would be carried out in any case.

The true measure of success in the tug-of-war over the case will hinge on whether Aghajari walks free - as the reformists and students demand - or ends up with the lengthy jail sentence which would pacify the hardliners.

In recent weeks, the reformists have suffered many setbacks.

Most significantly, one of their leading figures, Abbas Abdi, is one of three public opinion pollsters to be arrested for conducting research on Iranian attitudes to the United States.

Lawyers have not been given access to the detainees, and their families have been allowed only minimal contact.

Threat of chaos

The Iranian Intelligence Ministry - now largely under reformist influence - has dismissed the judiciary's claims that by carrying out polls commissioned by foreign embassies, the accused were guilty of espionage.

Reformist leaders say the arrests were an attempt at intimidation, as parliament debates two crucial bills with which the embattled reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, is trying to break the deadlock imposed on the reform process by entrenched hardliners.

The bills will be passed by the reformist-dominated parliament, but stand to be rejected by the highly-conservative Council of Guardians, which has to endorse legislation.

Its own powers would be clipped by one of the bills.

The other would empower the president to intervene in judicial cases - such as that of Aghajari - where he believed the constitution was being breached.

Deadlock over the bills would lead to mounting pressure on President Khatami and reformist parliamentarians to resign, and political chaos could ensue.

Ayatollah Khamenei warned recently that if the feuding politicians were not able to deal with the country's problems he might have to turn to the "forces of the people".

That was seen as a reference to the basij - Islamic volunteer militias - and other regime loyalist irregulars who helped quell violent street riots in 1999, triggered by a police raid on a student dormitory.

See also:

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