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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 18:07 GMT
Iranian 'blasphemy' authors pardoned

Abbas Nemati
One of the authors, Nemati, in court last October

Two Iranian students convicted of writing a satirical play deemed blasphemous have been released from jail after being pardoned by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mohammed Reza Namnabati and Abbas Nemati had been found guilty by the Tehran Press Court of insulting the 12th Imam, one of the holiest figures in Shi'a Islam.

They were given three-year prison sentences, but these were reduced to one-year in November.

The play provoked outrage among hard-line conservatives, but President Mohammad Khatami said they had exaggerated the significance of the play which was published in a small university magazine.

At the time, conservatives were quick to blame Mr Khatami's policy of encouraging press freedom for the appearance of such material.

Lost popularity

The pardon is reported to have coincided with the anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution on 11 February.

But news of the development comes days after President Khatami's reformist faction roundly defeated the conservatives in Friday's parliamentary elections, slashing their majority in the assembly.

Correspondents say that since their defeat, the hard-liners have moved quickly to try to regain some of their lost popularity.

On Monday, Iranian reformist Abdullah Nouri - jailed for five years by hard-liners for religious dissent - was allowed to go home on leave.

Mr Nouri's leave was extended on Wednesday, according to one of his relatives.

The relative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the court did not give a reason for the extension.

Press freedom

The trial of Mr Nouri - a close ally of President Khatami - in November, was widely believed to have been an attempt by hard-liners to keep him from contesting Friday's polls.

President Khatami's younger brother, Muhammad Reza Khatami, who spearheaded the reformist campaign, has said political development would top the new political agenda - notably changes to the laws on press freedom and elections.

Mr Namnabati and Mr Nemati were both tried by the hard-line press court amid a campaign by conservatives to stifle publications which supported President Khatami.

Several such newspapers were closed last year, and their editors charged with insulting individual officials, the Islamic state or Islamic values.

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See also:
27 Sep 99 |  Middle East
Blasphemous play aggravates Iranian rift
22 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Iran parliament meets after election shock
24 Sep 99 |  Middle East
Students arrested for 'Islam insult'
25 Jul 99 |  Middle East
Iranian editors ordered to court
21 Feb 00 |  Media reports
Print media triumphs in Iranian elections
22 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Iranian politics: A family affair

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