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Iran's ban on Salam newspaper deals new blow to reformers

TEHRAN, Aug 5 (AFP) - A five-year ban slapped on Iran's popular reformist Salam newspaper, whose initial closure sparked days of bloody riots, has dealt another blow to President Mohammad Khatami's reform agenda ahead of key elections next year.

"Goodbye Salam!" was the headline Kar-O-Kargar, a workers' newspaper hich like the rest of the press reported without comment Wednesday's decision by the hardline Special Court for Clergy.

The court, a pillar of the Islamic regime, also banned the paper's director, Mohammad Khoeinia, from working as a journalist for three years and find him 7,600 dollars.

He was convicted last week on a sweeping array of charges ranging from libel and defamation, to publishing lies and classified information and insulting members of parliament.

The editor of Salam, Abbas Abdi, who faces charges of insulting the clergy and the Iranian people, was freed on bail by the hardline court Tuesday.

There was no-one available for comment from the newspaper.

Salam's closure has silenced a leading mouthpiece for Khatami's supporters as the country prepares for crucial legislative elections in February, and a lively forum for political and social debate.

Moderates hope the elections, the first since Khatami took office in August 1997, will end the the conservative majority in parliament.

Iran's conservative-dominated judiciary has in recent waged a crackdown on moderate newspapers, closing at least three pro-Khatami papers since the beginning of the year and arresting or interrogating dozens of journalists.

Salam's initial closure in early July followed parliamentary approval for sweeping new press curbs and triggered unprecedented student protests in Tehran which erupted into six days of bloody riots as security officials and hardline vigilantes attacked protestors.

During the unrest, the worst since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution, three people were killed in Tehran and other cities and around 1,400 people arrested, according to official figures.

Khoeinia, like Khatami, is a member of the Association for Combatant Clerics, a radical political-religious formation turned reformist since Khatami's election two years ago.

He had for many years followed a radical revolutionary line, and became famous as a leader of the 1979 seizure of hostages at the US embassy in Tehran.

Khoeinia was originally sentenced to three years in prison, but that sentence was replaced by the ban on Salam.

The change was justified "by the services rendered to the nation by Mr. Khoeinia before and after the (1979 Islamic) revolution," the court said.

The trial stemmed from Salam's publication in July of a letter from a rogue intelligence officer accused of involvement in the murders of several dissidents and intellectuals last year.

The disgraced officer, who committed suicide in prison in May while facing an almost certain death sentence, had written to superiors in the intelligence ministry calling for tough new curbs on the press.

The ministry said filed a complaint against Khoeinia for publishing classified information and the clergy court subsequently imposed the ban.

The press bill, which must still undergo detailed debate by parliament before becoming law, was followed this week by a sweeping new "thought-crime" law introduced by the judiciary.

The measure outlaws "any contact or exchange of information, interviews or collusion with foreign embassies, organisations, parties or media, at whatever level, which could be judged harmful to Iran's independence, national unity or the interests of the Islamic republic."

The publication of "confidential information about Iran's internal or external politics" as well as "the spreading of false information or rumour" would also be considered a crime.


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