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Iran's Supreme Court Overturns Dissident Professor's Death Sentence - 2004-06-01

A dissident Iranian history professor whose death sentence for blasphemy triggered student protests and international concern has again had his sentence overturned by Iran's Supreme Court.

Hashem Aghajari was sentenced to death in 2002 for blasphemy and insulting Islam after delivering a speech for which he was accused of questioning clerical rule in Iran.

On Tuesday, Iran's Supreme Court for the second time lifted the death sentence against the Tehran University history professor after a lower court had twice ruled that the he should be put to death.

Mr. Aghajari's arrest prompted widespread student protests in Iran and drew condemnation from the international community.

An expert on Iran and professor of political science at Cairo University, Amal Hamada, says internal and external political pressure helped lead to Tuesday's reversal of the death sentence. But she says Tehran also did not want to see Mr. Aghajari become an Iranian martyr.

"They're aware that if they sent him to death they would create a hero out of him," said Ms. Hamada. "And, by releasing him they may be hoping that he will become an ordinary part of the opposition, not a hero."

Ms. Hamada says the decision by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to twice send the case to the Supreme Court might be an indication he is willing to take a more active role in creating new avenues of compromise for reformers and conservatives in Iran.

In June 2002, Mr. Aghajari delivered a speech in which he said that Muslims were not monkeys that blindly follow the teachings of senior Islamic clerics. A lower court viewed the speech as a direct attack on the authority of the Supreme Leader and sentenced him to death.

But on appeal the Supreme Court disagreed and sent the case back to the same court that had initially convicted the professor. Again, Mr. Aghajari was found guilty. And, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court again overruled the lower court.

The professor had also been sentenced to eight years in prison. That sentence also has since been overturned, although he continues to be held behind bars in Tehran.

The latest judicial ruling is expected to be sent to another court where it is generally believed Mr. Aghajari's legal problems will likely come to an end.