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11/17/02 - IRANIAN PROTESTS - 2002-11-18

Across Iran, thousands of people have protested the death sentence handed down to activist Hashem Aghajari for questioning Muslim clerical rule. Those speaking out against the sentence include Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. On November 13th, he said the action by Iran’s cleric-dominated judiciary should never have been taken.

Mr. Aghajari is a history professor at the University of Tehran and a prominent member of an Iranian reformist party, the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization. He lost a leg in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. In a speech last June in Hamedan [ha-meh-DAHN], he said that people “should not blindly follow” religious leaders. He also compared the powers wielded by Iran’s clerical rulers with those of medieval Roman Catholic popes.

For this exercise of his right to free expression, Mr. Aghajari was convicted in a closed trial of “insulting” Islam. He was sentenced to seventy-four lashes, eight years in internal exile, and then execution. He has refused to appeal the verdict.

Mr. Aghajari’s trial and extraordinarily harsh sentence represent a grave breach of the right of due process. As U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, the case is an example of the “deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. Public executions, stonings, punitive amputations, and the persecution of reformers and the press have increased over the last several months.”

To protest the death sentence against Hashem Aghajari, thousands of students have held peaceful demonstrations for several days at the University of Tehran and other universities in the Iranian capital. Protests have also reportedly taken place in Hamedan, Isfahan [iss-fah-HAHN], Kerman [kehr-MAHN], Orumieh [oo-ROO-me-yeh], and Tabriz [ta-BREEZE].

These demonstrations are the latest indication that the people of Iran want political and economic reform. They have shown this in controlled presidential and parliamentary elections in which they gave overwhelming support to candidates -- including President Khatami -- who said they favored reform. It is time for Iran’s unelected clerical rulers to begin listening to the Iranian people.

As State Department spokesman Boucher made clear, the U.S. stands “with the people of Iran in their quest for greater freedom, prosperity, judicial due process, and the rule of law.”