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Iran: Khamenei Orders Academic's Death Sentence Revised

Tehran, 17 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered the country's judiciary to revise a death sentence it handed down on prominent pro-reform academic Hashem Aghajari, prompting student leaders to signal an end to the largest pro-reform protests Iran has seen for three years. The order was reported by the hard-line daily "Jomhuri-yi Islami" on 17 November and confirmed by both Aghajari's lawyer and the speaker of Iran's parliament.

A history lecturer and political activist, Aghajari said in June that each generation should be allowed to interpret Islam on its own, without the guidance of clerics. A hard-line court in the western city of Hamedan on 6 November convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to be hanged -- sparking protests from students, senior government officials, and even some prominent conservatives.

Parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi told parliament on 17 November that the supreme leader gave the order in response to an appeal from a group of university professors.

"The supreme leader has ordered the judiciary chief to carefully reconsider the death sentence against Aghajari in response to calls from hundreds of university professors urging that the verdict be reversed," the scholar's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, was quoted by AP as saying the same day.

But Khamenei's order makes it likely that the sentence will be overturned.

Iranian student leaders responded to the announcement by saying they are ready to call off their demonstrations and urge that students return to classes on 19 November.

"There's no need for the students to protest now," Reuters quoted one student leader who wished to remain anonymous as saying. "They presented and reached their goal, which was the cancellation of the verdict. It's a big victory for students in defense of freedom of expression."

The last time Khamenei intervened in a judicial matter was in January, when he ordered the judiciary chief to release a reformist lawmaker convicted of insulting the judiciary, according to Reuters, defusing a political crisis between the parliament and the judiciary. This latest move also came as tensions rose between reformists, many of them students seeking social and political freedoms, and Islamic conservatives who control the police, the judiciary, and key political posts.

Aghajari has refused to appeal the sentence, and on 15 November urged restraint from his backers. But his lawyer, Nikbakht, said on 17 November that he will pursue Khamenei's order and appeal, according to Reuters. The sentence would be considered final on 2 December unless Aghajari appealed it or the judge or prosecutor general reversed it, the news agency added.