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Monday, 2 December, 2002, 15:18 GMT
Profile: Iranian academic facing death
Hashem Aghajari
Professor Aghajari criticised Islamic clerics
Professor Hashem Aghajari, the Iranian academic sentenced to death for apostasy, is a disabled war veteran and member of a leading reformist movement.

His sentence was delivered by the Iranian judiciary, which has long taken a hard line against reform and its supporters.

The court decision has led to protests by pro-reform students and counter-demonstrations by hardliners, who support the death penalty.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Khamenei wants to avoid conflict over the case

On 2 December, Mr Aghajari's lawyer lodged an appeal against the death sentence.

Mr Aghajari had said that he would not appeal against the sentence, declaring it was up to the judges to decide.

It is not clear whether he has changed his mind and appealed, or whether his lawyer has acted against his wishes.

The lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, had said that he would appeal even if his client did not want him to, in order to calm the crisis.

The case has drawn the intervention of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who ordered a review of the sentence.

After a delay and appearing to resist the ayatollah's instruction, the Iranian judiciary said the death sentence passed by a provincial court is to be reviewed.

And the judiciary has now said that after the appeal, the court will follow normal procedures to review it.

Enraged conservatives

Professor Aghajari is an active member of the pro-reformist Islamic Revolutionary Mujahidin Organisation, but has not been a prominent figure until now.

A 45-year-old war veteran, he was disabled during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq conflict, losing his right leg below the knee.

A lecturer in history at Tarbiat Moddaress University in Tehran, Professor Aghajari enraged conservatives in an address in June in which he said that Muslims should not uncritically follow the line laid down by Islamic clerics "like monkeys".

He questioned why clerics alone had the right to interpret Islam.

Conservative demonstrators
Conservative support for the death penalty

The address brought a strong response from conservatives and many clerics, who accused him of being Iran's Salman Rushdie, after the author against whom the Iranian clergy issued a fatwa following his criticism of Islam in a novel.

In August, the professor was detained in the western town of Hamedan on the order of a local judge and a provincial court later sentenced him to death for apostasy for his comments.

Teaching ban

The sentence and support for it among conservatives has been seen by some observers as part of the struggle between reformers and conservatives.

They disagree strongly over issues such as freedom of opinion, the judicial system and the position of the clerics.

Reformist President Khatami has criticised the court's sentence as "inappropriate" - but he does not have the power to commute the sentence.

President Khatami
President Khatami is under pressure from conservatives

Hashem Aghajari has said consistently that he will not appeal against the death sentence. His lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, said that his client wanted the judicial authorities to remove all the sentences imposed on him.

In addition to the death penalty, he was sentenced to eight years' internal exile in remote areas of Iran and banned from teaching for 10 years.

The professor's lawyer has also been quoted as saying that the professor refused to appeal because he believed that "those who have issued this verdict have to implement it if they think it is right or else the judiciary has to handle it".

There has been no public comment from Mr Aghajari himself on the appeal lodged on his behalf by his lawyer.

The human rights group, Amnesty International, has campaigned against the sentence and has also said that Hashem Aghajari is in need of urgent medical attention because of problems with the remaining part of his right leg.

'Unjustified'

Criticism of the sentence has also come from other prominent critics of conservative clerics.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a senior cleric currently under house arrest in the holy city of Qom, denounced the death penalty.

Reformist students
Students demonstrated against the death sentence

He said that if anyone had wanted to deal a blow to Islam, the best way to have done it was through the "harsh and unjustified" death sentence against Professor Aghajari.

He also questioned the religious validity of the sentence.

The grand ayatollah's criticism is unlikely to have any great effect on the deliberations of the judicial authorities.

They will take more notice of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who certainly appears to be concerned that the sentence and the reaction to it by reformers and conservatives could have a destabilising effect on Iran.

See also:

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