Hard-line cleric in Iran calls for death penalty against reformist scholar

TEHRAN, Iran - A senior Iranian cleric has called on the judiciary to sentence to death a prominent reformist scholar being tried for questioning the hard-line clergy's interpretation of Islam.

But Ayatollah Ali Meshkini's call was rejected Sunday by a leading reformist who defended university professor Hashem Aghajari's June speech, in which he said fundamentalist Islam had penetrated parts of Iran's ruling establishment.

Meshkini, head of the powerful Experts Assembly that elects and supervises Iran's supreme leader, told worshippers in a Friday sermon that Aghajari should face the death sentence for his derogatory comments.

"The judge should think to issue a death sentence for that person who made such comments," Meshkini said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

On Sunday, Abbas Abdi, a member of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran's most popular reformist party, said Meshkini's comments were a sign of fear and weakness spreading through Iran's conservative establishment.

"Ruling hard-line clerics are afraid that Aghajari's ideas and comments are being welcomed by the public," Abdi told The Associated Press. "Hard-liners are weakened and don't tolerate any criticism or opposition."

Aghajari was ordered detained on Thursday after a closed hearing in Hamedan in western Iran, where he made his June comments. He has been charged with insulting Islamic sanctities. The court has described his speech as blasphemous.

In his speech, Aghajari said clerics' teachings on Islam were considered sacred simply because they were part of history, and questioned why clerics were the only ones authorized to interpret Islam.

"We need a religion that respects human beings. The fundamentalist religion tramples human values. Unfortunately, this fundamentalist approach has penetrated parts of the establishment," he said.

Aghajari's lawyer, Sale Nikbakht, on Sunday refused to comment on Meshkini's statement.

Aghajari's reformist party, the Organization of Islamic Revolution Mujahedeen, denounced his detention, IRNA reported Saturday.

After losing control of parliament in February 2000 legislative elections, hard-line followers of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have tried to protect their eroding power by thwarting President Mohammad Khatami's reform program. Khatami's campaign includes giving more political and social freedoms as well as freedom of expression.