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Iran: Student Protests Grow Over Death Sentence For Reformist Professor

Demonstrations by Iranian students protesting the death sentence handed to a Tehran University professor show no sign of losing strength on the fourth day of the rallies. RFE/RL looks at how the case of reformist history lecturer Hashem Aghajari -- sentenced to death for blasphemy after questioning the right of the clergy to rule Iran -- is so galvanizing students.

Prague, 12 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The number of Tehran University students protesting the death sentence recently handed to a popular history professor, Hashem Aghajari, has grown steadily since the demonstrations began on 9 November.

The protests, now in their fourth day, brought out some 5,000 students today for sit-ins and boycotts of classes in what have become the largest pro-reform student demonstrations since massive nationwide unrest three years ago.

During today's protest, students called upon Iranians to defend freedoms and for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down: "Freedom-loving people, we are ready, we are ready. [Supreme] Leader, get lost, get lost!"

Beginning on 9 November with some 500 students, the protests have swelled through the week. At Tehran University and several other campuses in the capital, as well as in the provincial cities of Tabriz, Isfahan, Urumiyeh, and Hamedan, students have gathered to hear speeches, to hold peaceful demonstrations, and to call for lifting the teacher's sentence.

The country's largest student movement, the Federation of Islamic Associations of University Students of Iran, has formally called on Khamenei to intervene against the death sentence.

The student protests began the day after a court in Hamedan handed down a string of penalties, including the death sentence, against Aghajari after trying him on charges of blasphemy.

The charges stemmed from a speech Aghajari made in June in Hamedan in which he questioned why only clerics have the right to interpret Islam. Aghajari, who is 45 and lost a leg in 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, said each new generation should be able to interpret the faith on its own.

Students say that the protest grew out of what was initially student displeasure over the quality of food being provided at the university cafeteria during the Muslim prayer and fasting month of Ramadan, which began last week.

One of the students, who gave only his last name, Ahmedi, described the start of the pro-Aghajari protest in an interview yesterday with RFE/RL's Persian Service.

Ahmedi said the protest erupted spontaneously and was not organized by any political group. "So, [the protest] stemmed from [complaints over the quality of the food]. The students brought out all the food and dumped it on the lawn in front of the administrative offices. Then the number of the students grew and the complaints turned to politics and they vehemently objected to the verdict issued against Hashem Aghajari," Ahmedi said, adding: "They were chanting slogans against the supreme leader and the judiciary whom they hold responsible for the verdict. No political group claimed responsibility for the protests, and students don't necessarily trust any political group, anyway."

Another student, a woman who gave only her last name, Farmarzi, said students at many other universities are holding similar protests. "[There are protests] in many universities and, in particular, [at] Tarbiat Moddarress [Teacher Training] College where [Aghajari] lectured. And other professors, in protest against the verdict, have abandoned their lectures," Farmarzi said.

Farmarzi said that during the protests many students have called the verdict against Aghajari a violation of all Iranians' freedom of speech. "Students have expressed their objection through silence and by sealing their lips with masking tape. They have billboards with slogans [calling for] 'freedom of speech', 'freedom of press,' and [protesting the] unjust verdict against Aghajari and demanding revision of the verdict," Farmarzi said.

She also said many classrooms yesterday were half-empty as boycotting students sat on the campus lawns and declared classes to be in recess.

The sentence against Aghajari includes not only execution but also 74 lashes, exile to three remote Iranian cities for eight years, and a ban on teaching for 10 years. The multiple sentence is widely believed to be an effort by the hard-line court in Hamedan to assure that Aghajari is severely punished even if his death sentence is waived by the supreme leader in a gesture to the reformist camp.

Aghajari's lawyer Saleh Nikbakht has said he will appeal the court's verdict. He said his client is innocent of all charges because he said nothing to insult the Islamic Prophet Mohammad, the usual grounds for blasphemy.

The sentencing of Aghajari has incensed not only students but many reformist parliamentarians. Two parliamentarians have resigned their seats in protest and one, Hussein Loqmanian, told the press that, "this verdict shows our judiciary hasn't improved even a little bit." He called the court decision "a medieval verdict."

At the same time, parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who termed the verdict "disgusting," sponsored a petition signed by 181 members of the 290-seat parliament urging the lifting of the sentence.

Aghajari is both a teacher and a leading member of the reformist political party, the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization. The organization has supported President Mohammad Khatami's goals of reforming the Iranian establishment from within and is frequently targeted for criticism by hard-line Iranian clerics.

The conviction of Aghajari is the latest development in the ongoing power struggle between hard-liners and reformists that dominates Iran's politics.

This month saw not only the action against Aghajari but also the jailing of another prominent reformist, Abbas Abdi.

Abdi was arrested as part of a crackdown on polling companies that released a survey two months ago showing most Iranians back talks with Washington. He also had angered hard-liners by calling on supporters of Khatami to walk out of the government and parliament if presidential initiatives to weaken the hard-liners' power base are blocked.

The proposals, now before parliament, would increase Khatami's power to oversee and punish judges who exceed their constitutional limits by holding closed-door trials to prosecute reformists.

The proposals would also limit the ability of Iran's electoral-vetting body, the Guardians Council, to disqualify candidates according to vague standards of loyalty to the Islamic Revolution.

Both initiatives are likely to be the subject of a protracted battle between reformists and conservatives whose outcome is impossible to predict for now.

The death sentence against Aghajari and the jailing of Abdi occurred at the same time that Supreme Leader Khamenei last week waived the remaining two years of a five-year sentence being served by another highly prominent reformist, Abdullah Nuri.

Nuri, a former interior minister and publisher of a liberal newspaper critical of hard-line officials, was convicted, in part, of "propagandizing against the Islamic Republic." His release has cheered the reformist camp, although he remains banned from political activity for the remaining two years of his sentence.

Supreme Leader Khamenei this week warned Iran's rival reformist and hard-line institutions to settle their differences or face the possibility that he might intervene by force to end their disputes.

Khamenei, also the supreme commander of the armed forces, said 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," adding, "I hope that will never happen," but he provided no further details as to what he meant.