Iran Students Stage Third Day of Protests

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Hundreds of Iranian students chanting "Death to despotism" boycotted classes and staged a rally on Monday in a third day of protests in support of freedom of speech and political reform.

The demonstrations, sparked by a death sentence imposed on a reformist academic last week, are the largest pro-reform protests in the Islamic Republic for three years.

"I feel ashamed to live in a society... where people are jailed for their opinions," Saeed Razavi Faqih, one of the organizers of Monday's rally, told a crowd of about 1,000 at Tehran's Tarbiat-e Modarres University.

The protests come as President Mohammad Khatami is engaged in a make-or-break struggle to assert his authority over hard-liners who have frustrated his efforts to promote democracy in the country of 65 million people.

The reformist-dominated parliament passed a pair of draft bills in the last two weeks aimed at curbing the power of conservative-controlled bodies such as the judiciary.

But conservative watchdogs are likely to veto the bills, leading many reformists to call on Khatami to resign.

"Khatami, resign, resign" the students chanted enthusiastically on Monday.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful figure, met Khatami and other senior officials on Monday. No reason for the unannounced meeting was given.

Scores of outspoken intellectuals and journalists have been jailed in the past three years in a conservative crackdown.

But it was the case of reformist history lecturer Hashem Aghajari, sentenced to death last week for blasphemy after he questioned the right of the clergy to rule Iran, that detonated the current wave of protests.


Reformers are enraged, seeing the sentence as a direct attack on free speech.

"I believe the hard-liners are mistaken in thinking that society will express its opposition calmly and peacefully through the print media," reformist deputy Ahmad Shirzad said in an interview in the English language Iran News on Monday.

"In my view, Iran is on the verge of renewed tensions on a massive scale."

So far the student protests have been entirely peaceful.

At Monday's rally, student's carrying pictures of Aghajari listened to a recording of one of his lectures before a succession of speakers denounced his death sentence.

"Whether the execution is carried out or not is not important," said student leader Razavi Faqih. "They are imposing the teachings of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky on the people in the framework of Islam," he said to loud cheers.

"Although I don't agree with some of Aghajari's opinions, I'm ready to be executed in his place."


Aghajari, a member of the radical reformist Mujahideen of the Islamic Revolution, is also a veteran of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war in which he lost a brother and a leg.

"What (Iraqi President) Saddam (Hussein) couldn't do, these people are doing now," Mehdi Hosseini, who fought alongside Aghajari in the war, told the students.

Addressing the country's clerical hierarchy, he said: "You were urging the youth to go to the front and pushed them to the minefields. But where were your children at that time? They were having fun in Europe."

Police kept an eye on the rally, but did not intervene.

More protests were planned for Tuesday at Tehran University, scene of violent 1999 clashes between hardline vigilantes and reformist students which led to mass arrests and spurred on a conservative crackdown on all forms of dissent.

Conservatives have so far been largely silent on the protests. State television said on Sunday students were angry about the quality of food in the university canteen.

Some analysts said hard-liners were waiting for the students to step out of line in order to crack down hard.

"They are looking for an excuse to suppress the demands," Tehran university politics professor Hamid Reza Jalaipour said.