Iran parliament demands lifting of "disgusting" death sentence against reformist scholar

TEHRAN, Iran - Nearly two-thirds of Iran's reform-minded parliament on Sunday called for lifting a death sentence handed down to a reformist scholar convicted of insulting Islam and questioning hard-line clerics.

Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi said the death sentence against university professor Hashem Aghajari by a hard-line court was a "disgusting" verdict and urged it not be carried out. Other lawmakers said it portrayed Iran as a "dictatorial, anti-human rights and anti-freedom country."

Responding to Karroubi's plea, 181 members of the 290-seat parliament signed a letter urging the lifting of the death sentence.

Aghajari's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, said Thursday that his client was convicted of insulting Prophet Muhammad and questioning the hard-line clergy's interpretation of Islam in a speech he made in June in the western city of Hamedan.

With protests growing against the death sentence, two lawmakers from Hamedan province resigned to protest the verdict. It was not clear whether the house would accept the resignations of Hossein Loqmanian and Mohammad Reza Alihosseini

Karroubi, addressing an open session of the parliament that was broadcast live on state-run Tehran radio, called on the hard-line judiciary chief to interfere.

"As a cleric, I denounce this disgusting verdict. ... I call on the head of the judiciary to solve this problem before we pay a heavier price for it," he said.

The speaker, whose speech was interrupted several times by applause from the house members, said no senior clerics agreed with the ruling. He addressed Aghajari's family saying the charges against the scholar were "irrelevant" and they should expect him to return home. Karroubi gave no further details.

Leading reformist legislator Mohsen Armin said the sentence portrays Islam as a religion of violence, and Iran's Islamic establishment as "a dictatorial, anti-human rights and anti-freedom."

Armin, a member of Aghajari's party, the pro-reform Islamic Revolution Mujahideen Organization, said the party won't request a pardon from the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"Such ruling could never be enforced and Aghajari should be released immediately," he said.

Meanwhile, Iran's most senior dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, said that nothing could harm Islam's image more than the sentence against Aghajari.

Montazeri has been under house arrest since 1997 for questioning the legitimacy of clerical rule. "A minority group resorts to oppressive methods in the name of Islam to remain in power against the wishes of the nation," he said in a statement, a copy of which was made available to The Associated Press on Sunday.

On Saturday, government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh deplored the court decision as hundreds of students held a peaceful demonstration gathering in front of Tehran University dormitory to protest the sentence.

Aghajari, a history professor at Tarbiat-e-Modarres University in Tehran, was ordered detained in August during a closed hearing in Hamedan, western Iran. He remains in custody in Hamedan and was informed of the verdict on Wednesday.

In his speech in June, Aghajari said that clerics' teachings on Islam were considered sacred simply because they were part of history and that each new generation should be able to interpret the faith on its own.

The comments enraged hard-liners, who organized street demonstrations in several Iranian cities and urged the courts to prosecute Aghajari, whose party supports Khatami's program of social and political reforms.

In another development, the parliament approved the outlines of a bill that would give President Mohammad Khatami powers to stop the judiciary and other unelected institutions from violating the constitution.

The bill has to be approved by the conservative Guardian Council to become a law. The Council is expected to reject the bill and send it to the Expediency Council — another conservative body arbitrating between the Guardian Council and the parliament — for a final decision.