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Iranian Religious Leader Urges Courts to Use Death Penalty Against Protesters - 2003-06-20

A senior Iranian religious leader has urged his country's courts to use the death penalty against protesters who have been calling for political reforms.

In a sermon at Friday prayers, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi called on the country's Islamic judiciary to hand out death sentences to what he termed the hooligans taking part in the recent protests in Tehran and other parts of Iran.

Those protests, erupting into violent clashes between demonstrators and vigilantes loyal to the government, appeared to have subsided Friday, the Muslim day of worship, after nine consecutive nights.

In his sermon, broadcast on state radio, Ayatollah Yazdi said the country's courts should consider the demonstrators as among the corrupt on earth, a charge, which has in the past carried the death penalty.

Ayatollah Yazdi is a member of Iran's Guardian Council, the country's top political oversight body. In the Friday sermon, he also warned the United States not to use its forces against Iran.

Hundreds of people have been arrested in Iran, since the protests began more than a week ago. U.S. officials have applauded the demonstrations, saying they are calls for democracy. But Ayatolla Yazdi warned U.S. officials not to exaggerate the importance of the protests. Other Iranian leaders have said the U.S. statements amount to interference in Iran's internal affairs.

The protests are part of a power struggle between Iran's relatively liberal President Mohammad Khatami and his supporters, and the conservative religious leaders who hold ultimate power.