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Tehran's former mayor jailed on corruption charges

TEHRAN, May 6 (AFP) - Tehran's popular former mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi began serving a two-year sentence for corruption on Thursday despite last-ditch efforts by his moderate supporters to stop him going to jail.

Karbaschi had given himself up to a Tehran court following a warrant issued against him last week, more than a year after he was first arrested on charges he denounced as a purely political smear campaign by his hardline detractors.

He was taken to Evin prison in northern Tehran after the court confirmed the sentence against him, in a fresh setback to moderates struggling against a crackdown on reforms waged by the country's powerful conservative faction.

Police broke up a rally outside the courthouse by several hundred supporters of Karbaschi, a reformer close to moderate President Mohammad Khatami who is credited with giving Tehran a much-needed facelift during his term in office.

"Karbaschi, you are our hero" chanted demonstrators, hurling flowers at him as he left the courthouse, but tussles broke out with other demonstrators hostile to the former mayor.

The 44-year-old former cleric had been free since his conviction last year, but a warrant issued a week ago indicated that he would have to turn himself in no later than Thursday.

Karbaschi was forced out of office and sentenced to five years in prison and a 20-year ban on holding public office on corruption charges that he insisted were a political frame-up.

In December the sentence was reduced by an appeals court to two years in prison and a 10-year ban on public office.

Karbaschi remained defiant in an interview published Thursday with government newspaper Iran, saying he was no thief and that the people of Iran should judge for themselves whether the sentence was just.

"Unfortunately, some people are cutting at the roots of the system and turning justice into unjustice," Karbaschi said.

He said his only crime was to give plots of land to five unnamed "directors" at a reduced price.

"How is it possible that someone who has served (the country) for 18 long years -- night and day -- is now to serve a two-year jail term on corruption charges," he said.

The former mayor had lodged several appeals seeking a retrial but all were rejected by the supreme court. Nevertheless, around 70 moderate ministers and government officials sent a last-minute letter to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asking him to pardon Karbaschi, the conservative Kayhan newspaper reported on Wednesday.

Several officials had also asked former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a top adviser to Khamenei, to press the supreme leader to intervene, Kayhan added.

It was Rafsanjani who brought Karbaschi to Tehran shortly after he was elected president in 1989 and put him in charge of a city near-wrecked by war and neglect.

Karbaschi's spectacular trial was widely seen among reformers and moderates as a politically motivated attack by the regime's conservatives and hardliners.

Although he is officially suspended from all functions, Karbaschi's successor as mayor has yet to be named.

But the ban on holding office has not kept him from his duties as secretary general of the Executives of Construction Party (ECP), the political movement grouping the Islamic regime's reformist politicians.

"Even if he goes to prison he will remain chief of the Construction Party," said moderate MP Faezeh Hashemi, who is one of Rafsanjani's daughters.


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