Tehran, Nov. 22 (Reuters): Iranian riot police fired tear gas and beat several people with batons today as a memorial service for a murdered intellectual became the latest focal point of the largest pro-reform protests for three years.
The gathering of at least 4,000 people in Tehran was the first reformist demonstration in the last two weeks not led by students and the first to provoke intervention by security forces.
It came amid rising political tension in the Islamic republic where moderate President Mohammad Khatami is locked in a power struggle with hardliners who run the judiciary, armed forces and several powerful unelected state bodies.
Khatami, who has threatened to quit if conservatives continue to obstruct his reform plans, is pushing for legislation giving him greater authority to run the country. Students have staged almost two weeks of rallies and class boycotts in support of free speech and political reform.
At the memorial service for Dariush Forouhar, a nationalist murdered along with his wife four years ago by rogue intelligence ministry agents, police tried to prevent the crowds from congregating around the mosque in southern Tehran.
But they refused to disperse and began clapping and chanting: “Political prisoners must be released”.
Many of the demonstrators, of mixed age and social background, said they had heeded calls to show up broadcast by Iranian satellite channels based in the United States.
Plainclothes police and hardline militiamen mingled with the crowd, occasionally lashing out with punches and kicks at young men who led the chants, witnesses said. Some protesters emerged with bloody noses and cuts on their faces.
At least a dozen people, including some local journalists, were seen being handcuffed and driven off in police cars.
“I’m afraid but at the same time we’re tired of these pressures,” said one middle-aged woman, who gave her first name as Mina. “We came here for the freedom of the country.”
Later as the crowds tried to follow Forouhar’s family to their nearby home a line of riot police blocked their path. They fired at least three tear gas canisters and made several baton charges into the crowd. “The people have the right to demand the release of the political prisoners,” said Hossein Ansari Rad, one of several reformist politicians who attended the service.