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Young Iran dramatist lands in big political drama

By Mehrdad Balali

TEHRAN, Oct 31 (Reuters) - An Iranian student seeking to dramatise his deep religious idealism in a small campus play has found himself at the centre of a wider political drama and facing an uncertain future.

An Iranian court is due to issue verdict on Tuesday after a trial earlier this month of the author, Abbas Nemati, and three others held for allegedly insulting a Shi'ite Moslem saint in a satirical sketch published in an obscure university journal. (Read the play: here)

The play, which evokes Shi'ite Islam's 12th Imam, an untouchable figure whose return to earth is believed will usher in a period of perfect justice, sparked an uproar among religious hardliners, who called it blasphemous.

But Nemati, a sophomore law student, and his co-defendants argue they had no intention to insult the Imam or the faith.

One of Nemati's close relatives, who requested anonymity, said the play was only a ``crude and thoughtless'' exercise by an aspiring screenwriter.

``He has no interest in politics. He likes to write movie scripts. The walls of his room are lined with scripts. He has more books on screenwriting than about law,'' he told Reuters.

The relative said the play was Nemati's first chance to have a work published.


Conservatives have called the play a by-product of Western liberal influences in Iranian campuses, a trend they say is helped by the more tolerant cultural policies of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

The president himself condemned the play but said the offence was compounded by the hardliners' efforts to turn it to political advantage and ensure their own survival.

Nemati's relative said the author is a ``strictly devout'' Moslem, and a product of one of the solidly-religious schools set up after the 1979 revolution to educate the youth in the mold of Shi'ite Islam and untainted by western influences.

``He is radical in a religious sense. He follows Islamic teachings to the letter. He is even more pious than the rest of his family,'' he said.

Nemati's mother, fully wrapped in the black chador, a trademark of more pious women in Iran, sat quietly inside the judicial complex in Tehran, awaiting a word on the sentencing.

``I don't think he will easily get off the hook. The judge is very unpredictable,'' said the relative, referring to judge Saeed Mortezavi, who presided over the trial.

``We are all suffering from this ordeal. It has really turned our lives around.''

Mortezavi accused the defendants during the trial of insulting the 12th Imam as part of a wider effort to undermine the nation's religious and revolutionary faith.


Under Article 513 of the criminal code, insulting the Imam carries a possible death sentence, while lesser slights earn up to five years in jail.

Nemati's relative said the play should be evaluated from an artistic point of view.

``He didn't mean to offend anyone. When you portray a bad guy in a story, you can't expect him to speak like a good person. So that does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the author,'' he said, referring to the main character, Abbas, named after the writer.

Nemati, obviously shaken by the affair, told the court during his trial that he wrote the play to ``serve the interests of religion.''

The writer surrendered himself to the authorities after the other suspects were arrested in a campus swoop.

Reflecting the sensitivity of the case and general sympathy for the defendants, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for leniency.


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