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Iran's Khamenei Orders Review of Dissident Professor Hashem Aghajari's Death Sentence - 2002-11-17

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered the country's hard-line judiciary to review the death sentence of a prominent pro-reform academic, who was found guilty of blasphemy.

The speaker of Iran's reform-minded parliament, Mehdi Karubi, told parliament on Sunday that Iran's most powerful figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had ordered the judiciary to re-examine the death sentence given earlier this month to pro-reform history professor Hashem Aghajari.

Mr. Aghajari, who is a close ally of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, was sentenced to death by a single judge in a closed courtroom for suggesting in a speech that Muslims should be free to interpret their faith as they wish. He also questioned the authority of the powerful Shiite clergy. The judge said the professor had insulted Islam.

The death sentence sparked a week of student demonstrations on campuses throughout Iran. Students boycotted classes and mid-term exams. Several of Mr. Aghajari's colleagues at Tehran University resigned in protest.

Hundreds of university professors requested the verdict be overturned, and two-thirds of Iran's parliament members signed a letter asking that the sentence be reversed. President Khatami called the sentence inappropriate and said it should never have been issued.

The controversy erupted as President Khatami is trying to gain greater control over the hardline judiciary and the Guardian Council, a conservative watchdog panel.

Some political analysts suggest that the widespread student demonstrations are pushing Iran toward a political deadlock between conservatives and reformists. But Dr. Pakinam el-Shakarwy, a political professor at Cairo University and expert on Iran, disagrees. She said the protests only show how popular President Khatami is among Iran's youth.

"They are kind of an indicator of the power of the president, Khatami. That his main power are on the streets and with the movement, and that's why, I think, it's kind of an endorsement to President Khatami more than being a threat to the regime. Because, I think, if you are going to preview all of the tensions between the two camps, the moderates and the conservatives, you are going to find that both of them are using their powers to prove and to endorse the situation against each other," she said.

Student leaders have been quoted as saying the supreme leader's decision to call for a review of Mr. Aghajari's death sentence amounts to victory. Consequently, they say, they plan to call off their protests with classes to resume as early as Tuesday.