| Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Tehran, Nov. 17 (Reuters): Students who have staged Iran’s biggest pro-reform protests for three years claimed a victory for freedom of speech today as Iran’s supreme leader ordered a review of the death sentence against a dissident academic.
The week-long student rallies and strikes in support of history lecturer Hashem Aghajari, condemned to hang for blasphemy, had raised political tension at a crucial stage in the power battle between Iran’s reformists and hardliners.
The reformists, allied to President Mohammad Khatami, enjoy popular support and dominate Parliament, but have run into stiff resistance from conservatives opposed to changing Iran’s Islamic system who control the judiciary and other key state bodies.
The hardline Jomhuri-ye Eslami newspaper today reported that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful figure, had ordered the judiciary to review the case against Aghajari who angered hardliners by questioning their dearly-held belief in a marriage between religion and state.
“Based on the request of hundreds of university professors, the leader ordered the judiciary to carefully review this case,” the newspaper quoted an informed source as saying. “An appeals court has been authorised to carefully review Aghajari’s case.”
The newspaper, seen as being close to Khamenei, said the death sentence would most likely be overturned on appeal.
Students greeted the news as a victory and said they would consider ending mass protests at campuses across the country.
“There’s no need for the students to protest now. They presented and reached their goal which was the cancellation of the verdict,” said one student leader, who declined to be named. “It’s a big victory for students in defence of freedom of expression,” he said by telephone.
Analysts said Khamenei’s intervention, which followed widespread criticism of the Aghajari verdict by reformists and even some prominent conservatives, revealed how concerned the leadership had been about the protests.
“The fact that Khamenei intervened showed that this was an important and sensitive issue,” said analyst Saeed Leylaz.
The judiciary, which has been a major thorn in the side of Khatami’s reform efforts, closing scores of liberal newspapers and jailing pro-reform intellectuals and journalists, emerges weaker from the case, analysts said. “The judiciary will have to be more careful in future... This was a setback for them,” said Hamid Reza Jalaipour, lecturer in political science at Tehran University.
Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi thanked Khamenei for intervening. “I would particularly like to thank the leader for taking into account the importance of blood and human life in Islam,” he was quoted as saying by the state IRNA news agency.
Frustrated by five years of almost constant battle with hardliners, Khatami has presented two bills to Parliament in a last-ditch attempt to curb the power of the judiciary and the veto-wielding Guardian Council.