The United States is expressing deep concern about a death sentence handed down against a leading Iranian reform activist, and says the judgement appears to reflect a worsening human rights situation in Iran.
State Department officials say they're "gravely concerned" about the death sentence against Hashem Aghajari, an Iranian academic and political reformist who was condemned by a court in the western city of Hamedan Thursday for insulting Islam.
Mr. Aghajari, a political ally of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, was arrested in August after a speech in which he called for a "religious renewal" within Shiite Islam and said that Muslims should not follow religious leaders "blindly."
The Iranian court system is under control of religious hard-liners and Mr. Aghajari's sentence, which also included flogging and imprisonment, is reported to be the harshest leveled against a reform politician in recent years.
A State Department spokeswoman, Lynn Cassel, said the trial and "extraordinarily harsh" sentence against Mr. Aghajari, merely for exercising his right of free expression, represents "a breach of accepted international standards of due process."
She said U.S. officials believe the court action reflects a broader deterioration of human rights in Iran and that public executions, stonings and punitive amputations and the persecution of reformers and the press have increased over the last several months.
Ms. Cassel said the United States is with the people of Iran in their quest for greater freedom, prosperity, judicial due process and the rule of law.
The 45-year-old Mr. Aghajari, a writer and faculty member at Tehran University, had been openly critical of Iran's religious leadership and advocated separation of state and religion.
A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Mr. Aghajari had publicly apologized for the remarks that spurred his prosecution in a letter to parliament, saying he intended no insult to anyone, and reportedly did so again during his closed-door trial.
The French news agency (AFP) says Iran's largest student movement appealed to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Friday to spare Mr. Aghajari's life.
The Federation of Islamic Associations of University Students in Iran said it "rejects and condemns " the verdict and asks the country's highest authorities to prevent the sentence from being carried out.
Mr. Aghajari is a member of a secular and leftist party, the Organization of Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, a leading proponent of government reforms.