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31 July, 2004
Leading Iranian dissident Hashem Aghajari, who spent two years in jail facing the death penalty for blasphemy, has been freed on bail. Mr Aghajari, 47, was sentenced to hang in 2002 after he urged people not to follow their religious leaders blindly.
That verdict provoked the biggest student protests in years, forcing Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei to order a review. At his second retrial earlier in July, Mr Aghajari was given a five-year term.
The Supreme Court will now rule on how much of time Mr Aghajari must serve out, taking into account the time already spent behind bars. "I hope there will come a day when no-one goes to prison in Iran for his opinions, let alone be sentenced to death," Mr Aghajari said, barely holding back his tears on arrival back at his home in north Tehran. "I hope that all prisoners of conscience who have committed no crime will be released soon," he said, defying an order to stay silent.
His family and neighbours handed out sweets and fruit juice to celebrate his freedom. "Finally my dad is free," said his daughter Maryam, while his wife, Zahra Behnoudi, expressed her joy at his release while adding, "I would rather he had been acquitted."
A reformist friend had posted the bail of 970m rials ($113,000), while more than 160 well-wishers, including academics and clerics, had offered to contribute, Mr Aghajari's lawyer said.
Mr Aghajari, a history professor at a Tehran college, made a speech in August 2002, which was a seen as an attack on the country's Islamic establishment and led to his being charged with blasphemy and apostasy.
He said that Muslims were not "monkeys" and "should not blindly follow" the clerics. After student protests, Ayatollah Khamenei was forced to step in and order a retrial. During his trials, Mr Aghajari called for democratic reform, telling the court he stood for "an Islam that brings about freedom and is compatible with democracy and human rights."
He is a war veteran who lost a leg in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. He belongs to a left-wing reformist political group, the Islamic Revolutionary Mujahidin Organisation.
17 February, 2003
Iran Professor Hashem Aghajari sent back to death court for questioning the power of Iran's clerics
The Iranian university professor whose death sentence for apostasy was quashed last week is to be retried by the same court that ordered his execution.
A spokesman for the judiciary said Hashem Aghajari, who was given the death penalty last November for questioning the rule of the clerics in Iran, could even face the same punishment. It's possible that the new verdict will be the same as the original one.
Monday's announcement on the fate of Mr Aghajari was made by newly appointed judicial spokesman, Gholamhussein Elham.
"It's the court of first instance (in the western city of Hamedan) ... which must correct procedural failings and issue a new judgement," Mr Elham told the official IRNA news agency.
"It's possible that the new verdict will be the same as the original one."
Mr Elham's comments will come as no surprise to many observers in Teheran, BBC correspondent Miranda Eeles said.
He is seen as a right-winger even within the conservative-dominated judiciary. He was appointed after his predecessor, Hussein Sadeghi, controversially resigned in December in protest at Mr Aghajari's sentence.
According to one of the judges, they voted to revoke the death penalty, saying the charges were incompatible with the sentence.
Mr Aghajari's case caused widespread protest last year, in particular amongst university students. Students demonstrated against the death sentence. For more than a month thousands demonstrated on campuses all over the country calling for his release but also for political reform.
Observers in Teheran have so far doubted the death penalty would ever be carried out. Monday's statement is likely to confuse matters further, our correspondent says.
For his remarks in June, Mr Aghajari was also sentenced to 74 lashes, banned from teaching for 10 years and banished to three remote cities for eight years.
Mr Aghajari enraged conservatives when he said that Muslims should not uncritically follow the line laid down by Islamic clerics "like monkeys".
He questioned why clerics alone had the right to interpret Islam, which led many to accuse him of being "Iran's Salman Rushdie".
Iran's parliament denounced the death sentence as "disgusting" and President Mohammad Khatami also condemned it.
Human rights group Amnesty International has taken up the case of Professor Aghajari, a 45-year-old veteran who lost a leg in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Monday, 18 November, 2002, Iranian students clash with hardliners.
Thousands of Iranian students demanding political reform have clashed with hardline militia groups in the capital, Tehran.
" Our problem is not only the revision of the death sentence on Hashem Aghajari, but freedom of speech and freedom in general" said Student leader Abdollah Momeni. Witnesses said about 5,000 students gathered at the Sharif Technical University campus to protest against the death sentence passed down to pro-reform academic Hashem Aghajari earlier this month.
Fighting between the two sides is said to have broken out towards the end of a speech by a student, when several hundred hardline militants entered a hall in the university where the students were and began punching and kicking them. The group later dispersed, but some of the students were reported to have sustained light injuries.
Outside the university, police maintained a heavy presence, reportedly restricting passage into and out of the campus. The protest was held despite an order at the weekend by the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, that Mr Aghajari's sentence should be reviewed.
Fighting also broke out on Sunday between the two groups at the university. BBC correspondents say Ayatollah Khamenei's decision to order a review of Mr Aghajari's sentence indicates how seriously the authorities view the protests.
Monday's demonstrations are the latest in a series in support of Aghajari, who lectures in history. Many feel it unlikely the death sentence will be carried out.He was found guilty of renouncing Islam on 7 November after saying in a speech that each generation should re-interpret aspects of Islam rather than blindly follow religious leaders.
Last Friday, hardliners held counter-protests where about 1,000 people called for his execution, many of them dubbing him "Iran's Salman Rushdie".
Reformists see the prosecution as the latest in a long line of moves against liberal figures by the hardline judiciary.
The BBC's Jim Muir reports that it was unthinkable in Iran that the death sentence would actually be carried out. A war veteran who lost a leg in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, Hashem Aghajari belongs to a left-wing reformist political group, the Islamic Revolutionary Mujahidin Organisation.
by Miranda Eeles

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