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Protests in Tehran Over Death Sentencing of a Reformist Scholar

November 13, 2002

Interview: Guy Dinmore Discusses Recent Student Protests in Tehran Over Death Sentencing of a Reformist Scholar

All Things Considered, Monday: November 13, 2002 – Listen to the interview

LYNN NEARY, host:

Student protests are growing in Iran. It’s the fifth day of demonstrations against a death sentence imposed on a reformist scholar. Several thousand people protested today in Tehran. Many carried a portrait of the scholar, Hashem Aghajari, who is closely associated with President Mohammed Khatemi. Aghajari was sentenced to death for a speech he made last summer challenging the rule of hard-line clerics. Guy Dinmore has been covering the demonstrations for The Financial Times.

Mr. GUY DINMORE (The Financial Times): Well, today the main rally was held inside the Amirkabir University in central Tehran, which is probably known as the most radical of the universities. And there was a range of speakers protesting against the death penalty that’s been handed out to the history lecturer, Hashem Aghajari. And the students are now openly demanding his release from prison.

NEARY: Tell us a bit about who Hashem Aghajari is and the circumstances that led to his being sentenced to death.

Mr. DINMORE: Yes, certainly. He’s an interesting individual. He’s a history academic at a Tehran university called Modarres University. He lost a leg during the war against Iraq and also suffered severe burns, I think from a chemical attack. So he’s well-known as a war veteran, as an Islamic liberal academic. And he spoke in June on the anniversary of the death of Shyati(ph), who was one of the main ideologues behind the 1979 Islamic revolution. And Hashem Aghajari’s theme was one of Islamic Protestantism, which is essentially about the reforms that the Islamic clerical hierarchy needs to go through, and he was, in effect, challenging their right to rule over Iran and calling not necessarily for a secular state but coming close to something like that.

NEARY: What was he charged with?

Mr. DINMORE: He was actually charged with insulting the prophet Muhammad and committing apostasy. The logic behind this is that in Iran, strict interpretation of the Islamic law here is that if anyone seriously challenges the government they are therefore challenging the Islamic government which is in effect challenging God’s government on Earth, which is in effect challenging Islam. So a broad interpretation of the laws in this country would really allow the judiciary almost to accuse anyone of apostasy who essentially challenges the Islamic system of law and rule in Iran.

NEARY: And as I understand it, Iran’s supreme religious leader has said that he may call for the use of public force against the protesters. What does that mean, and how much would that escalate the situation?

Mr. DINMORE: He was very vague in what he meant by this, but people seized upon his remarks and they were interpreted by most people to mean that he would be ready if the system was sort of completely paralyzed by this political conflict–he would be ready to call out the revolutionary guards and the Bet Siege militia(ph). These are two groups of ideologically committed storm troopers, if you like, who would sort of protect the Islamic system from threat.

Now if he did, this obviously raises the specter of widespread violence and possibly civil unrest, and people do not seriously believe that the supreme leader would be ready to do this, but it has certainly raised tensions here. And the reformist movement is now saying, `Well, if you really want to test what the force of the people mean, then let’s have a referendum,’ and this is essentially what the political debate is about now. The reformists are saying if you won’t pass these laws, let’s have a referendum and hand it over to the people to decide. And the students who have been out for the last five days protesting against this death sentence are now really focusing their attention more and more on the political side of the debate and supporting these calls for a referendum.

NEARY: All right. Thanks very much, Guy. Guy Dinmore is the Iran correspondent for The Financial Times.

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