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Clerics court convicts reformist publisher

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's special clerical court Sunday found the publisher of the leading pro-reform newspaper Salam guilty of printing classified material and defamation, the official IRNA news agency said, raising the prospects the influential daily will be silenced for good. (Related photo)

The agency said Mohammad Mousavi-Khoeiniha, a powerful leftist cleric, had also been found guilty of publishing insulting language and misleading the public.

``The majority of jurymen did not consider the publisher of the daily deserving a commutation of sentence,'' IRNA said.

A final judgement, which could include the permanent closure of Salam, exclusion from press activities for Mousavi-Khoeiniha or even his imprisonment, was due later.

The conviction of the publisher, one of the driving forces behind the 1997 election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami, follows six days of pro-democracy protests set in motion by the hardline clerical court's original ban against Salam, issued on July 7.

The protests culminated in street riots in central Tehran and demonstrations in many other cities, all part of the worst unrest since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Earlier in the day, a jury of eight clerics heard charges that Salam had published a classified document, slandered provincial officials and accused MPs of complicity in an anti-press campaign with a rogue secret agent charged with masterminding last year's serial murders of secular dissidents.

``Salam is trying to create turmoil and instability in the basic pillars of the system and the revolution,'' charged parliamentary deputy Hamid Reza Taraqi, one of the plaintiffs.

He said the newspaper was playing into the hands of ``global arrogance and the Zionists'' -- political vernacular for Iran's arch-foes the United States and Israel.

Behind the fight over the fate of the newspaper lies the broader struggle between Khatami and his reformist allies against the entrenched interests of the conservative establishment.

``I say from the bottom of my heart and soul that our Islamic republic system can only carry on if it guarantees the maximum of legitimate freedoms within the framework of the constitution,'' publisher Mousavi-Khoeiniha, a cleric with impeccable revolutionary credentials, told the court.

He denied the document in question had been classified and said Salam deserved praise, not vilification, for issuing a public warning of a threat to the entire system by a rogue agent who later died in custody, reportedly by deliberately swallowing depilatory powder.

Still, he appeared resigned to the likelihood the court would close down Salam, which had almost single-handedly championed Khatami's maverick campaign.

``From the very beginning I had no intention of complaining or appealing the court's decision or even the court's jurisdiction. These people are chosen by the supreme leader and I am not protesting anything,'' said Mousavi-Khoeiniha, a former prosecutor-general.

In fact, the publisher only appeared in person after the direct intercession of the judge, who asked him to attend the hearing rather than submit a written defense. In court, he kept his answers short and ignored repeated political attacks by his accusers.

The passive defense offered by Salam, say analysts, reflects widespread anticipation the hardline clerical court would rule against the newspaper.

Among the eight-member clerical jury are two prominent hard-liners, including the head of the Islamic Propagation Organization.

Supporters of Salam also argue the case belongs in front of the Press Court, not the Special Court for Clergy which operates outside the judicial system.

As such, they say, it is more a partisan forum for political and ideological control of the clergy than a court of law.


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