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Iran appoints Shi'ite cleric as new top judge

TEHRAN, June 22 (Reuters) - Iran has appointed a founder of an Iraqi opposition group as head of its judiciary, current judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi said on Tuesday.

Yazdi, quoted by the evening daily Kayhan, said he would hand over the post in two months to Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi, who in the early 1980s helped found the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the main Shi'ite Moslem group fighting the government of President Saddam Hussein.

Quoted by the official news agency IRNA, Yazdi said Hashemi's appointment by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "is quite evident but nothing has been put on paper yet."

Reformist newspapers and academics have expressed hope that Hashemi would introduce changes in the judiciary, often accused of siding with conservatives in internal political rows.

Yazdi, a prominent conservative cleric, has served two five-year terms as judiciary head, a post he has used since 1997 to defend the conservative clerical establishment against challenges from reformist allies of President Mohammad Khatami.

Hashemi, 57, has taken a low profile in Iran's political infighting, earning him modest support from both conservatives and reformers.

Born and educated in the Iraqi city of Najaf, a stronghold of world Shi'ite Islam, Hashemi, who is of Iranian descent, left Iraq to live in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution there.

He founded SCIRI with the help of Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, the present head of the Iran-based movement, and served as its spokesman until 1984, according to newspapers.

Hashemi has been a member of several influential political and religious bodies, including the Guardian Council which oversees parliament and elections. In 1998, he was elected to the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint or sack the country's supreme leader.

Hashemi has taught at theological schools in the holy city of Qom and published books on Islamic jurisprudence. He is also a member of a committee trying to reconcile Islamic teachings with modern science and ideas.

Yazdi has been a strong defender of paramount clerical rule against Khatami's efforts to set up an Islamic civil society and democratic challenges from the president's supporters.

Under his administration, courts have tried and convicted several leading reformers and intellectuals, notably Tehran's former mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi for graft and Islamic thinker Mohsen Kadivar for propaganda against the state.

"Hashemi's arrival is not just a transfer of post, but it marks a fundamental change in the administrative texture of the judiciary," said the reformist Neshat newspaper.

During his 10 years at the helm of the judiciary, Yazdi strengthened the role of the clergy in the courts and boosted the role of Islamic sharia law, at the expense of the more secular judges and pre-revolutionary civil code.

"Some people pick up a pen and write that Islamic punishment belongs to Prophet Mohammad's time, and that we should act in conformity with human rights principles," Yazdi said on Tuesday.

"If we wanted to follow the Westerners' idea of human rights, we would not have even deposed the Shah," he said, referring to the former king toppled by the Islamic revolution.


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