PRAGUE, September 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- There was a time when teachers in Iran's schools used to give students golden paper stars to encourage them.
Nowadays it seems that stars are being given for punishment: the term "students with stars" is used to describe students who have been expelled or suspended from a university.
The term became prevalent after several students said university officials had refused to register them for the new academic year and told them that they have "two or three stars."
Student groups and activists say more than 100 students have been affected.
Ali Nekunesbati is a spokesman for Iran's main reformist student group, Daftar Tahkim Vahdat (the Office To Foster Unity). He says many student activists and members of his group have been marked with stars.
"Beside the names that were announced to the universities for enrollment, there was another list in which individuals are marked with either one star, two stars, or three stars," he said. "Who grants these 'stars'? As the head of the admission committee has said the Intelligence Ministry -is involved. We reiterate again that these 'stars' exist."
Earlier this week a student told the daily newspaper "Etemad" that because of his past activities as the editor in chief of a banned student publication he has been marked with two stars. He said university authorities had told him that his enrollment will be possible only with a letter from government officials.
Ali Azizi, the deputy head of the Islamic student association at Amir Kabir University, says university students who -- according to officials -- have "the potential to engage in future protests for their rights" have been barred from classes.
"They include 73 students who had been involved in activities such as press or political activities or even cultural activities and other student-related activities," he said.
Peyman Aref is a well-known student activist who has been expelled from the law faculty at Tehran University. He told Radio Farda that many of his colleagues have received notice that they have been suspended.
"There are other individuals who have not been registered for undergraduate studies in the past 10 days," Aref said. "In addition, more than 100 postgraduate students have been summoned to the disciplinary committee in relation to student protests in May and June. Harsh sentences have been issued to them."
Iranian Education Minister Mehdi Zahedi has, however, denied that students are being prevented from studying because of their activism. He said those who make such claims should publish a list of names of such students.
Pledging Not To Protest
But activists are concerned that issuing such a list could aggravate the situation and worsen the prospects for those banned students.
Authorities have reportedly told students with stars that they should refrain from political activities in order to be able to continue with their studies.
Morteza Nourbakhsh, the head of the Education Ministry's admission committee, denied reports on September 19 that students have to sign pledges not to engage in political activities. However, he added that some students are being asked "not to act outside norms, university laws, and conduct befitting a student." He said some 50 to 60 students have committed themselves to this.
Several legislators have criticized the restrictions and said its is against Iran's Constitution to prevent students from studying because of their opinions.
Many say the move is a violation of a student's rights.
A New 'Cultural Revolution'?
Nekunesbati said he believes the government's move against student activists is part of an increasing crackdown against critics.
"The government made some promises but it has not been able to fulfill them in the least. Instead of overcoming its weaknesses it has begun a crackdown on critics; and because students, professors, and the student movement are among the most critical groups, it is acting against them," he said. "The existence of students with stars is the latest sign [of the pressure on students]."
The outspoken student group Daftar Tahkim Vahdat said in a statement that the new crackdown coincided with remarks by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who said on September 6 that universities should be rid of liberal and secular influences from professors. The group said that the comments mark the beginning of a new "cultural revolution" with the aim of eliminating critics in universities.
In recent months dozens of liberal university professors have been forced into early retirement. Many student activists have been summoned to court and several have been arrested.
There is growing concern over their health and general safety in prison.
The concerns have increased following comments by former legislator and student rights activist Ali Akbar Musavi Khoeini, who said last week during a short prison leave that he's being tortured to "repent." People who have seen him say there are bruises on his neck and head.
(Radio Farda contributed to this report.)