TEHRAN, Nov. 12 — Thousands of students ignored official warnings and demonstrated today for a fourth day over the death sentence for a reformist scholar charged with apostasy.
Some 5,000 students gathered at Tehran University in support of the academic Hashem Aghajari, sentenced to hang for questioning clerical rule in the Islamic Republic.
"The execution of Aghajari is the execution of the university!" demonstrators chanted. "Political prisoners should be freed!"
The momentum of protests appeared to be growing, with more students gathering in Tehran each day and demonstrations spreading to the provincial cities of Tabriz, Isfahan, Urumiyeh and Hamedan.
After their rally in Tehran, students marched through the huge university campus, holding hands and singing "Ey Iran," the national anthem before the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The watching police did not intervene.
Iran's supreme leader and commander of the armed forces, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a veiled warning late Monday about the possible use of force if Parliament, the government and judiciary cannot settle their differences.
Using a term that has been widely used to describe the Revolutionary Guards and other hard-line militia groups, he said: "The day the three branches are unable or unwilling to settle major problems, the leadership will, if it thinks it necessary, use the popular forces to intervene."
"I hope that will never happen," he added, in comments broadcast on television.
Today's protests followed similar demonstrations on Monday at Modaress Training University in the central part of the city. More than a thousand students carried a portrait of Mr. Aghajari as they marched and chanted demands for the resignation of Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the hard-liner chief of the Iranian judiciary. The students also called for the resignation of President Mohammad Khatami, the leader of Iran's reform movement, in a sign of frustration with the continuous setbacks for reform.
Mr. Aghajari was sentenced to death last week in a closed-door trial in Hamedan on charges that he had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. The charges stemmed from a speech he made in August in which he called on people to not follow religious leaders blindly.
The demonstrations have been the largest since 1999, when students staged a week of protest throughout the country after hard-line vigilantes attacked a student dormitory.
A leading student activist, Saeed Razavi-Faqih, told the Iranian Student News Agency on Monday that students had decided to continue their protests in order to confront constitutional violations, not only in Mr. Aghajari's case but also in general.
"We must reach a stage in our destiny that we have lawful rights and freedoms," Mr. Razavi-Faqih was quoted as saying.
In a statement, protesters declared that the death sentence against Mr. Aghajari was an insult to university students and professors and demanded an apology from the judiciary. "The death sentence for Mr. Aghajari is punishing him for his opinion, which is against the Constitution and human rights," the statement said. The director of the humanities department at Modaress and several professors resigned in protest over the sentence.
On Sunday, the speaker of the Parliament, Mehdi Karoubi, expressed "hatred and disgust over the verdict" on behalf of himself and a group of clerics. Two members of Parliament from Hamedan, where the sentence was issued, resigned in protest.
However, Parliament continued with its reform agenda, passing a bill on Sunday that was aimed at limiting the judiciary's suppression of activists. It was the second such bill in two weeks; a measure passed last week was aimed at limiting the power of the Guardian Council, the hard-line body that regulates elections in Iran and has barred hundreds of liberal politicians from ballots.
The two bills are considered to be the reason for recent crackdowns on reformist activists by hard-line opponents of President Khatami. The bill passed on Sunday would give the president more power to censure other branches of government over constitutional violations.