Iranian Scholar Sentenced for Insulting Prophet

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's hard-line judiciary on Thursday sentenced an outspoken reform activist to death, the Iranian Student News Agency reported.

The activist, Hashem Aghajeri, a university professor and a close ally of President Mohammad Khatami, was charged with insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a speech in August in which he said that Muslims should not follow religious leaders "blindly."

Aghajeri is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, in which he lost a leg. But his criticisms of the system made him a target of hard-liners.

He also was sentenced to 74 lashes, banned from teaching for 10 years and exiled to three remote Iranian cities for eight years.

Iran frequently issues such multiple sentences in cases where it wants to make an example of the accused.

This is the harshest sentence that a court has issued for a reform politician in recent years. Controlled by hard-line opponents of Khatami, Iran's judiciary has jailed dozens of reform activists. But none had received death sentences in recent years. Aghajeri was tried behind closed doors in the city of Hamedan, where he had given the speech.

Aghajeri's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, said that he would appeal and expressed hope that the appeals court would dismiss the charges of "insulting Prophet Muhammad."

He added that the appeals court would realize that such a verdict would not serve national interests at such a crucial time in Iran and in the region.

Aghajeri sent a letter to the speaker of Parliament in August in which he apologized for what had been interpreted as insulting terms and said that he had no intention of insulting anyone. His lawyer said that he apologized again during his trial.

Aghajeri, one of the most outspoken activists, had criticized Iran's leadership and called for the separation of state and religion