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Top Iran reformer says dissent charges 'illegal'

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Leading Iranian reformist Abdollah Nouri has denounced his indictment by a Special Court for Clergy on charges of religious and political dissent as ``illegal.''

His condemnation of the court raises the stakes in a struggle between the conservative establishment and moderates backing President Mohammad Khatami.

In an interview due to be published late on Tuesday, Nouri, the top vote-getter in this year's race for the Tehran city council and close adviser to Khatami, called the clerical court a rogue body.

But said his trial on October 20 would allow the people to see the true face of his conservative rivals.

Excerpts of his remarks were obtained by Reuters before scheduled publication in the pro-reform daily Aftab-e Emrouz.

Nouri's bid as the reformist standard-bearer in parliamentary polls early next year faces derailment after the court charged him with insulting leaders of Iran's Islamic system, backing ties with arch-foe the United States and sullying the memory of late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

``The Special Court for Clergy is an illegal body,'' Nouri said. ``However, it will provide a forum where things will be clarified, and the people will know who are the friends and who are the foes of the Imam (Khomeini).''


Reformist allies denounced the indictment and the expected closure of Nouri's Khordad newspaper.

The charges were seen as part of pre-election moves by conservatives to prevent a repeat of the humiliation they suffered at the hands of Khatami, who won an unexpected landslide victory over the establishment candidate in May 1997.

A conviction, or even a pending charge, could be grounds for his disqualification from the February 18 parliamentary elections by a powerful conservative-led body which oversees the polls.

``I think that these events must be seen in the framework of the parliamentary elections.

``Nouri is the most outstanding candidate from Tehran and both he as a person and his newspaper Khordad can be very influential in the elections and their outcome,'' pro-reform commentator and editor Saeed Leylaz told Reuters.

``We believe this time period was chosen to remove Khordad from among the newspapers and Nouri from the election race as part of a larger scenario by the conservatives to tighten their grip on the seats in the next parliament,'' said Leylaz.

``In the (pro-reform) front, Abdollah Nouri is the most beloved political figure after President Khatami.''


In the newsroom of Khordad, the most prominent of the reformist newspapers still allowed to publish, the mood was subdued. Many feared for their jobs but said they might try to put out a new daily if Khordad were closed.

``The main aim is that Nouri will be eliminated from the elections,'' said one editor. ``The elimination of Nouri is completely against the president.''

Other charges against Nouri, a mid-ranking Shi'ite Moslem cleric, included backing Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a top dissident theologian now under house arrest, and challenging the existence of absolute truth under Islam.

If convicted, Nouri could face many years in prison and lashes, and legal experts say Khordad -- founded after conservatives in parliament expelled him from Khatami's cabinet -- was likely to suffer the same fate as three other major reformist dailies closed by hardline courts in the past seven months.

``We smell conspiracy and animosity from the general content of (his) newspaper and there is no other choice but to believe that these are done with malice and forethought,'' said the Special Court for Clergy's indictment.

``Our warnings and recommendations were to no avail.''

Nouri recently resigned from the Tehran city council, which he had chaired after topping the polls, to clear the way for a run at parliament. He was widely tipped as the reformists' candidate for parliament speaker if they won the elections, a position now seriously in doubt.


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