Students, Islamic regime supporters clash at rally

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

TEHRAN, Iran -- Fist fights broke out Monday between supporters of Iran's Islamic regime and university students who issued a rare public criticism of Iran's supreme leader during a rally in support of a history professor sentenced to death for insulting Islam.

The students organized the demonstration at Sharif Technical University in Tehran to support reformist scholar Hashem Aghajari. About 3,000 students chanted slogans calling for freedom of speech and accusing hard-line clerics of thwarting President Mohammad Khatami's political and social reform programs.

When the students criticized the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and called for a referendum to determine reform programs, about 700 supporters of the regime who were standing by rushed the student demonstrators and began throwing punches.

Police stood guard outside the university to keep passers-by away from the rally but did not intervene in the melee. The number of injuries was not clear, but students were seen carrying colleagues away.

Heightened tensions

Aghajari's case has heightened tensions in the power struggle between reformists -- many of them students -- who seek more social and political freedoms, and Islamic hard-liners, who control the police, judiciary and other positions.

Student demonstrations supporting Aghajari have been held regularly since earlier this month after the announcement of the verdict. The protests snowballed into some of the strongest demonstrations in more than three years.

On Saturday, Khamenei ordered the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, to reconsider the sentence, a decision that means the death sentence is likely to be overturned.

Shahroudi was quoted Sunday as saying the court would follow normal legal procedures to reconsider the verdict. "Some people use everything to achieve their political aims ... (but) nobody would impose any point of view on the court," state-run Tehran radio quoted Shahroudi as saying.

Aghajari's attorney Saleh Nikbakht had said last week that his client decided not to appeal the death sentence, challenging the hard-liners to carry out his execution. Nikbakht said he would pursue Khamenei's order and appeal the sentence, even though the professor still refused to agree.

The sentence will be considered final on Dec. 2 unless Aghajari appeals or the judge or prosecutor general reverses it.

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