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Thursday, 30 January, 2003, 10:14 GMT
Iran releases dissident cleric
Ayatollah Hussain-Ali Montazeri with well-wishers
Montazeri says he will not be silenced
Iran's most prominent dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hussain-Ali Montazeri, has been released after five years under house arrest.

Ayatollah Montazeri, who is in his 80s, appeared in good health as he greeted hundreds of well-wishers, some in tears, at his home in the holy Shia city of Qom, 130 kilometres (80 miles) south-west of the capital Tehran.

There have been no conditions [for release]

Ayatollah Montazeri
The ayatollah remained defiant towards Iran's hardline judiciary, vowing to "continue to talk about issues and to act," adding that it was his "religious duty" to do so.

He had been confined to his home since November 1997, after he criticised the authority of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Ayatollah Montazeri was once designated heir to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, who called Ayatollah Montazeri "the fruit of my life".

But the liberal cleric fell out of favour as early as 1988 - a year before Khomeini's death - when he criticised the execution of political prisoners and human rights abuses.

Bars removed

After his release was announced, Revolutionary Guards overnight dismantled a checkpoint and iron bars outside the cleric's home.

Ayatollah Khomeini
Khomeini once chose Montazeri to succeed him

Hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside crowded into the house for their first glimpse of the ayatollah in years.

"Words cannot express my feelings of meeting the ayatollah after so long," said Abbas Ali Fateh, one of the cleric's supporters.

As Ayatollah Montazeri greeted his well-wishers, sweets were passed around to celebrate his freedom.

In his first act on leaving the confines of his house, the ayatollah, dressed in clerical robes and a white turban, visited a mosque and shrine where one of his sons is buried.

'No conditions'

Ayatollah Montazeri insisted he had made no concession for his release.

"There have been no conditions. These rumours that my children have asked for my pardon - all are lies and baseless.

"Nobody has asked for anything and I have never asked anybody for anything, except God."

The authorities are thought to have been concerned the ageing cleric could become a focus for opposition groups within Iran if he died while under house arrest.

Correspondents say Ayatollah Montazeri's enduring influence can be seen in the upset he has occasionally caused by rebuking Ayatollah Khamenei.

He has also challenged members of the conservative Guardian Council, who see their jobs as vanguards against the advance of a more liberal, modernising trend in Iranian politics.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jim Muir reports from Tehran
"Ayatollah Montazeri has been enjoying his first day of full freedom for five years"


See also:

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28 Dec 02 | Country profiles
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