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Iran: Students Vow To Continue Protests Despite Warnings

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

Iranian student leaders say there will be no letup in their protests against the death sentence handed down to Tehran University professor Hashem Aghajari, who is charged with blasphemy for criticizing the country's ruling clerics. The protests have brought out large crowds of students on campuses in several Iranian cities over the past five days, heightening tensions between Iran's hard-line and reformist camps.

Prague, 14 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Students at Tehran University and in other cities show no sign of letting up pressure in what is becoming an escalating power struggle between reformists and hard-liners over the fate of a reformist professor.

Rallies on Tehran University campus brought out some 2,500 students yesterday. They gathered in an auditorium to hear impassioned calls for the reversal of the sentence against history lecturer Hashem Aghajari, who has been ordered by a court in the western city of Hamedan to be executed for blasphemy.

The blasphemy charges stem from a speech Aghajari made in Hamedan this summer in which he questioned why only clerics have the right to interpret Islam.

Student leaders say that they will not let up in their protests, which earlier in the week saw some 5,000 students at Tehran University boycotting classes and attending rallies. The rallies are the largest demonstrations since 1999, when a vigilante attack on pro-reform students sparked rioting around the country.

Adollah Momeni, a leader of the nationwide student organization the Office to Consolidate Unity, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that students are increasingly coordinating their rallies in different cities as the pro-Aghajari protests continue. "In recent days, the unity of the students, their awareness and coordination in objecting to this religious inquisition against freedom of speech and this oppression of intellectuals, has been excellent. We have been informed that students across the country are vigorously participating in this action," Momeni said.

Since the rallies began on 9 November at Tehran University, student gatherings have also been held in the major cities of Tabriz, Isfahan, Urumiyeh, and Hamedan, among others.

The rallies have not stopped at demands for Aghajari's release or calls for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to waive his death sentence. As Iran's hard-line judiciary has shown no signs of preparing to reverse the execution sentence, students have increasingly also called for Khamenei to step down, for the head of the judiciary to be fired and, at times, for President Mohammad Khatami to resign if he is unable to protect his reformist supporters.

A student at Tehran University, who did not want his name used, described the students' demands to RFE/RL's Persian Service: "The students' demands have been declared in a manifesto. [They include] the reversal of Aghajari's death sentence and his acquittal, the judiciary's apology for mistreating the professor and students, the president's clear and decisive reaction, and the resignation of the head of the judiciary or his dismissal."

The student also said that the protests show students are determined to obtain reforms, even if President Mohammad Khatami has been unable to deliver them as promised in his election campaigns. "This represents the revival of the student movement after two years of total silence, and it clearly states that most students are frustrated with the reforms conducted by Khatami and the reformists within the ruling structure and that they want to take over and control the reform themselves."

In his first statement on the issue, Khatami spoke out strongly against Aghajari's death sentence yesterday. He called the verdict "inappropriate" and said it "never should have been issued." But the president also warned against any escalation of the crisis, saying "under the current circumstances, no measures should be taken that promote tension." He urged everyone "to take into account the general interests of the regime."

His remarks came as Aghajari's lawyer announced yesterday that his client would refuse to appeal his death sentence, a direct challenge to the judiciary to dare to carry out its ruling.

Announcing his client's decision, Aghajari's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, said: "When I asked his [Aghajari's] opinion on the verdict he said: 'If this is just, there is no need of revision and it has to be upheld. [But] if it is unjust, those who issued the verdict have to be held accountable.'"

As students vow to continue protesting Aghajari's death sentence, the crisis is fast turning into a major struggle between Iran's reformist and hard-line camps over how much democracy Iran's theocracy will allow. The crisis has a high potential for erupting into violence if hard-line vigilantes intervene as they have in the past to crack down on pro-reform student protests.

When police and hard-line vigilantes raided a Tehran University dormitory complex three years ago to chase down students demonstrating against the closure of a liberal newspaper -- and threw several students out of top-floor windows -- student anger erupted into nationwide marches. The protests degenerated into widespread rioting and looting as nonstudents also took to the streets in the worst unrest since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The unrest ended only after a massive crackdown by security forces and hard-line vigilantes.

The supreme leader signaled earlier this week that he will not tolerate seeing the power struggle between Iran's factions spark further unrest. That power struggle has frequently seen Iran's elected leaders, mostly reformists in parliament and in the executive branch, square off against the country's appointed leaders, who dominate the judiciary and security forces. The key nonelected leaders are appointed by the supreme leader, who is officially neutral in Iran's factional conflicts but is widely seen as favoring the conservatives.

Khamenei, who is also the supreme commander of Iran's armed forces, warned that "the day the three branches [executive, legislative, and judicial] are unable or unwilling to settle major problems, the [supreme] leadership will, if it thinks it necessary, use the popular forces to intervene." He added that, "I hope that will never happen."

The phrase "popular forces" usually applies to the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the elite corps of the Islamic Republic's armed forces. Leaders of the Revolutionary Guards are often outspoken against reformists, whom they accuse of endangering the Islamic Revolution and favoring rapprochement with the United States.

In an interview with the daily "Entekhab" three months ago, a top Revolutionary Guards commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said the guards would intervene in political matters if necessary to ensure what he called state security.

(RFE/RL Persian Service broadcasters Mahmonir Rahimi and Siyavosh Ardalan contributed to this report.)