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Hardline court shuts Salam daily

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Aug 4 (Reuters) - Iran's hardline clerical court has banned the country's leading pro-reform newspaper for five years and barred its publisher from press activities, the official IRNA news agency said on Wednesday.

It said the court ordered a ban on the daily Salam for printing secret documents, while publisher and managing editor Mohammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha, a powerful leftist cleric, was suspended from journalism for three years.

The ruling by the Special Court for Clergy silences one of the most influential voices backing reformist President Mohammad Khatami, just seven months before parliamentary polls expected to shape the rest of his term in office.

The court also sentenced Mousavi-Khoeiniha, a former prosecutor general, to prison and lashes. However, both were suspended in light of his ``revolutionary credentials.''

Cash fines totalling 23 million rials, or about $7,600 at the official exchange rate, were levied in place of the jail terms and lashes, IRNA said.

The charges against Salam included the publication of what it said was a secret plan by hardliners to muzzle the press. It was also charged with insulting members of parliament and misleading public opinion by distorting the news.

The charges stem from Salam's publication last month of what it said was a letter from a rogue secret police official -- who later died in custody, reportedly by suicide -- outlining a campaign against the pro-reform press.

Underlying the case is the broader struggle between Khatami and his reformist allies against the entrenched interests of the conservative clerical establishment.

Analysts and commentators had widely predicted the closure of Salam, which had been one of the driving forces behind Khatami's suprise landslide election over a conservative rival in May 1997.

Even Mousavi-Khoeiniha had seemed resigned to his fate since the charges were first filed, only appearing in his defence after the direct intercession of the clerical court judge.

The court's original order suspending Salam was issued on July 7, the same day that the conservative-led parliament approved tough new press restrictions.

The moves touched off a pro-democracy student rally that was attacked by police and hardline vigilantes, leading to the worst unrest since the aftermath of the 1979 Islaimc revolution.

During his hearing before a jury of eight clerics, Mousavi-Khoeiniha said his newspaper had performed a public service by publishing the letter, which he denied was classified.

``I say from the bottom of my heart and soul that our Islamic system can only carry on if it guarantees the maximum of legitimate freedoms within the framework of the constitution,'' he said in his defence.

It was not immediately clear whether the verdict would be the subject of an appeal.


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