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Iran hawks demand death for dissident

Tehran, Nov. 15 (Reuters): Some 1,000 Iranian hardliners demonstrated today to demand the death sentence for a dissident academic in a backlash against the biggest student pro-reform protests in the Islamic Republic for three years.

Thousands of students held five days of protests this week to condemn the death sentence on Hashem Aghajari for blasphemy, galvanising President Mohammad Khatami’s flagging reform movement in its struggle to rein in conservative power.

“Iran’s Salman Rushdie should be executed,” the hardliners chanted in a reference to the British author condemned to death by Iran’s former leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for his book The Satanic Verses. “Aghajari should be hanged,” the male worshippers shouted as they emerged from Friday prayers at Tehran University.

It was the first large show of opposition to the pro-reform protests since they began last week. The campus demonstrations have remained almost entirely peaceful with police keeping students and smaller groups of hardliners apart.

A member of the conservative-dominated Expediency Council arbitration body said Iran’s Western enemies were trying to sow discord in the country, branded part of an“axis of evil” by US President George W. Bush.

“The enemies might have been discouraged from launching a military assault on us, but they are not discouraged from trying to topple the system from inside,” Qorbanali Dorri Najafabadi told worshippers today.

“The honourable Iranian nation, officials and pillars of the system should disappoint the enemy, so the enemy sees everyone in Islamic Iran is united,” he said. University lecturer Aghajari angered conservatives by questioning the right of clerics to rule Iran. He then refused to appeal his death sentence. The case comes as Khatami is set on a collision course with conservatives over two Bills before parliament aiming to curb their control of the judiciary and power to vet election candidates.

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