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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 18:41 GMT 19:41 UK
Cleric urges death for protesters
Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi
Yazdi said the protesters were working for America
A senior hardline cleric in Iran has called on the judiciary to bring charges carrying the death penalty against people arrested for involvement in the recent series of disturbances.

Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, himself a former head of the judiciary, accused the demonstrators of taking their line from the Americans and he warned Washington itself not to think that Iran could be another Afghanistan or Iraq.

Reformist leaders have urged that protesters be dealt with leniently while US President George W Bush described them as brave souls who should be treated with the utmost respect.

In Europe protests at France's crackdown on an outlawed Iranian opposition group this week have continued with more demonstrators setting themselves alight outside the French Embassy in London.

They are not our opponents - the judiciary should treat them like the opponents of God
Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi

Two men set themselves ablaze in succession but police quickly moved in to extinguish the flames and they were taken to hospital.

The demonstrators outside the embassy in Knightsbridge have been protesting at the arrests in Paris on Tuesday of 165 members of the People's Mujahideen, which has been listed as a terrorist group by the European Union.

Two other people set themselves on fire outside the embassy earlier in the week whilst other acts of self-immolation have taken place in Paris, Rome and Bern and Switzerland.

'This is not Iraq'

Addressing Friday prayers in Teheran, Ayatollah Yazdi said that those taking part in the current wave of protests were not bona fide students but hooligans who were instigated, and possibly even paid, by the United States.

He urged the judiciary, which he himself used to head until four years ago, not to show the offenders any mercy.

People's Mujahideen supporters on hunger strike in Paris
The People's Mujahideen has been outlawed by the EU and US

"They are not our opponents," he said. "The judiciary should treat them like the opponents of God [moharebs]."

Under Islamic law, the automatic penalty for this is death.

Several hundred people have been detained since the nocturnal disturbances began in Teheran 10 days ago.

Ayatollah Yazdi warned America not to be misled by the antics of what he called "a few hooligans".

Iran, he said, was not Afghanistan or Iraq. Its people, he said, would fight to the death to repel any attack.

Security clampdown

His warning came as a senior US State Department official, John Bolton, said that military action to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons had to be an option.

It was not, however, Washington's preference and was currently far from the administration's mind, he added.

The BBC's Tehran correspondent, Jim Muir, says that the wave of demonstrations by people fed up with the clerical regime appear to be largely dying away at the moment, not least because the trouble spots have been swamped with security forces.

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