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Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 05:28 GMT 06:28 UK

World: Middle East

Iran convicts reformist publisher

Musavi Khoenia defended himself before the special court

The jury of a special clerical court in Iran has found the director of a leading reformist newspaper guilty on several charges, including defamation and spreading false information.

Iran crisis
The newspaper, Salam, was banned earlier this month after publishing what it said was a secret intelligence ministry memorandum revealing moves to curtail the country's pro-reform press.

The closure prompted a student demonstration in Tehran, that in turn led to riots that were seen as the most serious challenge to the Islamist authorities in Iran for 20 years.

The BBC's Inga Thorner: "For the first time the cleric have held hearings in public"
The newspaper closure was part of crackdown by Iranian hardliners against liberal newspapers that have flourished under the moderate reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.

The director of Salam, Musavi Khoeniha, was found guilty of defaming the character of the ex-governor general of Ardebil province, publishing insulting language and misinforming the public, the official news agency IRNA said.

[ image: The closure of Salam sparked the unrest]
The closure of Salam sparked the unrest
The majority of the jury did not consider the publisher of the daily deserved a commutation of sentence, it added.

It said a final judgement on the charges would be issued within a statutory period.

The report gave no details on the status of the ban on the newspaper.

Our Middle East Correspondent, Jim Muir, says the proceedings of the normally secretive special clerical court in Tehran were broadcast at length on national television - an example of the transparency which is one of the watchwords of President Khatami's presidency.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Tehran: "A verdict the reformists expected"
In his defence, Mr Khoeniha told the court that the memorandum was genuine, and its publication had been in the public interest.

"I am responsible for the material published in the newspaper. However, one should see whether I had personally written those things myself or not.

"I did not know anything about those things and I had not read them," Iranian TV quoted him as saying.

'Bad choice of headline'

Prosecution witnesses included five MPs who alleged that the publication of a letter on plans to restrict the activities of reformist newspapers led to the recent unrest.

"The publication of a document classified as top secret, the choice of a headline which did not tell the truth, the deletion of the top and bottom of the letter and providing wrong explanations are among the charges which, in our view, cannot be dismissed," the prosecutor was quoted as telling the court.

The prosecutor said the accused had been given a suspended sentence in 1993, in which he was banned from running the newspaper, on charges of "insulting and traducing the people".

'Equal treatment for all'

In an earlier development, the directors of two conservative Iranian newspapers were summoned to court for publishing a secret letter by commanders of the Revolutionary Guards criticising the handling of recent student protests by President Mohammad Khatami.

The papers, Kayhan and Javan, were also accused by the presidential office of violating the press code by printing a confidential letter.

The letter from 24 senior Revolutionary Guard commanders accused the president of leading the Islamic Republic into "anarchy" and blamed him for the student protests.

It was seen by supporters of President Khatami as a warning of possible military intervention or coup.

"How long do we have to be subjected to this trial run of democracy, which has turned into anarchy and puts the Islamic regime at risk?" the letter said.

Supporters of Mr Khatami have urged the conservative-dominated judiciary to prove its impartiality by taking action against the two papers.

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