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Iranian Dissident Freed from Five Years of House Arrest - 2003-01-30

An ailing Iranian dissident has been freed after five years of house arrest, following appeals from reformists, professors, and government officials. The cleric was once in line to become Iran's supreme leader.

Dissident Iranian cleric Hossein Ali Montazeri, 80, walked out of his front door a free man, after Iran's Supreme Council of National Security ended his house arrest.

The dissident cleric, whose health is said to be declining, said he made no commitment and accepted no conditions to obtain his release. He said he will continue to speak out for what he believes in, and he started to do so.

Speaking to supporters outside his house, Mr. Montazeri said that in Islam, the power of the clergy is limited, and that no one has the right to use violence to promote their views. In recent months, the conservative clergy have sent gangs of supporters to violently put down student demonstrations.

The Imam also noted that the slogan of Iran's revolution was "independence, freedom, Islamic Republic," and he said 'freedom' includes free speech.

While under house arrest, he regularly issued calls for greater tolerance and democracy. He defended himself and other Iranian dissidents who speak to foreign radio stations, saying that Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, spoke to foreign stations when he could not get his views on the Iranian media.

Mr. Montazeri was in line to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini, but lost his position in 1988, when he criticized the government for human rights abuses, including the execution of political prisoners. He was placed under house arrest in 1997, after he publicly criticized Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the absolute power of Iran's senior clergymen.

The research coordinator for Iran Digest Magazine, Ahmed Menissy, said Mr. Montazeri has always believed that in an Islamic Republic, the supreme leader's role should be that of a spiritual guide, not a political leader. "The group that led the Iranian revolution and formed the country's new leadership in 1979 did not agree on the role of the supreme leader, " Mr. Menissy said, adding that Mr. Montazeri even had reservations about potentially taking on that role, because it became political.

A crowd of about 100 friends and supporters cheered as the Iranian dissident accompanied by two of his sons left his house to visit the gravesite of a third son, who was killed in a bomb blast at the Islamic Party headquarters in 1991.

Monday, Iran's conservative-dominated Supreme Council of National Security, chaired by reformist President Mohammad Khatami, made the decision to release Mr. Montazeri from house arrest.