The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Iran students rally behind sentenced reformist

Tehran, Nov. 11 (Reuters): Hundreds of Iranian students chanting “death to despotism” boycotted classes and staged a rally today in a third day of protests in support of freedom of speech and political reform.

The demonstrations, sparked by a death sentence imposed on a reformist academic last week, are the largest pro-reform protests in the Islamic Republic for three years.

“I feel ashamed to live in a society...where people are jailed for their opinions,” Saeed Razavi Faqih, one of the organisers today’s rally, told a crowd of about 1,000 at Tehran’s Tarbiat-e Modarres University.

The protests come as President Mohammad Khatami is engaged in a make-or-break struggle to assert his authority over hardliners who have frustrated his efforts to promote democracy in the country of 65 million people.

The reformist-dominated parliament passed a pair of draft Bills in the last two weeks aimed at curbing the power of conservative-controlled bodies such as the judiciary.

But conservative watchdogs are likely to veto the bills, leading many reformists to call on Khatami to resign.

“Khatami, resign, resign” the students chanted enthusiastically today. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful figure, met Khatami and other senior officials today.

Scores of outspoken intellectuals and journalists have been jailed in the past three years in a conservative crackdown.

But it was the case of reformist history lecturer Hashem Aghajari, sentenced to death last week for blasphemy after he questioned the right of the clergy to rule Iran, that detonated the current wave of protests.

Reformers are enraged, seeing the sentence as a direct attack on free speech.

“I believe the hardliners are mistaken in thinking that society will express its opposition calmly and peacefully through the print media,” reformist deputy Ahmad Shirzad said in an interview in the English language Iran News today.

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