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7/22/04 - IRANIAN PROFESSOR SENTENCED - 2004-07-23

Iranian professor Hashem Aghajari has been sentenced to five years in prison for publicly expressing his views.

Mr. Aghajari was a history professor at Tehran’s Modarres University. In June 2002, he was arrested after he gave a speech in which he called for a “religious renaissance” among Shiite Muslims. In November 2002, in a closed trial without a jury, Mr. Aghajari was convicted of “insulting” Islam and sentenced to death. But an international outcry and protests by Iranian students forced the radical Iranian judiciary to revisit his case earlier this month.

When he appeared in court for his retrial, Mr. Aghajari said he had merely been questioning clerics and not insulting Islam. “All I said,” he declared, “is that modern Islam is at risk from the fundamentalism we see in the Taleban and Osama bin Laden.”

In countries where human rights are respected, such comments would be a perfectly normal exercise of freedom of speech. But in Iran, says U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, human rights are not respected:

“This fits the pattern of harassment and difficulties created for people who try to speak out, the lack of public expression in Iran, the lack of the ability for people to speak out on topics that are of concern to them.”

Across the Middle East, says President George W. Bush, people are demanding that authoritarian rule give way to democracy and respect for human rights. Iranian human rights activist Ladan Boroumand says speaking out can bring change to Iran:

“The more you bring shame to the totalitarian regime, the more you fight against the machinery to create illusion, the illusion of popularity, the illusion of reform, the more you will restrain them in the use of violence.”

If Iran’s radical unelected clerics do not “heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people,” says President Bush, the regime will “lose its claim to legitimacy.”