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Latest Protests Over Iranian Professor's Death Sentence Turn Violent - 2002-11-18

Thousands of reform-minded Iranian students clashed with hard-liners Monday over a death sentence imposed for blasphemy on a university professor. After 10 days of protests in Tehran, fighting broke out for the first time Monday.

About 3,000 students were met by a few hundred hard-liners at Tehran University. The confrontation grew violent after riot police surrounded the two groups in an effort to prevent them from spilling into the city streets.

Western news agencies report students shouted for a referendum on Iran's political future and for freedom for political prisoners. Some students were slightly injured fighting the hard-liners.

At issue is the death sentence of history teacher Hashem Aghajari. He was sentenced last month for publicly suggesting individual Muslims have the right to interpret Islam. That is something that the country's conservative judiciary run by religious leaders does not accept. Mr. Aghajari also questioned the clergy's role in ruling Iran.

Iran's President Mohamed Khatami is a reported ally of Mr. Aghajari. The president called the verdict inappropriate. Two thirds of the country's parliament called for the sentence to be lifted.

The dispute comes as President Khatami is trying to gain a measure of control over the judiciary and other key institutions controlled by conservative Islamic clergymen.

On Sunday, student leaders pledged to halt the protests after the country's conservative supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for a review of the verdict. But protests continued Monday anyway.

Some political analysts say the widespread protests are pushing Iran toward a political confrontation between reformers and conservatives.