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Fresh paint, plaster greets Iran's angry students

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Students at Tehran University, the epicentre of pro-democracy unrest in July, trickle back to campus this week where fresh paint on the bloodied hostel walls may not be enough to erase their anger or defuse reform demands.

Workers laboured around the clock to get everything ready for returning students after police and Islamic hardliners broke up a peaceful rally on the night of July 8-9 and then rampaged through the dormitories, beating residents with clubs and guns.

At least one person was killed in the assault and scores seriously injured, touching off six days of violent protest in Tehran and on other campuses that shook the Islamic republic. Others are missing and feared dead.

``The reopening of the Tehran University dorms marks the end of the dirty face of violence in academia,'' Morteza Alviri, the Tehran mayor, said at a ceremony to unveil the repairs. ``We worked 24 hours a day to remove the ugly remains of July 9.''

But university officials and student leaders are wondering out loud whether that would be enough for a student population that feels increasingly isolated from its dreams of greater social and cultural freedom, enhanced political rights and some semblance of economic opportunity.

``We hope that psychologically the students and the professors will also be rehabilitated. It seems this psychological factor is more important than just repairing the damage,'' said Tehran University chancellor Mansour Khalili-Araqi, who offered his resignation in protest at the attack on the dorms. ``We hope that justice will be done.''


Even as work crews put the finishing touches on their repairs to the big dormitory complex, stark reminders remained of this summer's violence. ``On July 9, students rolled in their own blood,'' read a painted slogan on the school of metallurgy dorms that had so far evaded the clean-up crews.

Such anger, student leaders say, is likely to flare again in large measure because most student demands have not been met.

These include public prosecution of police officers involved in the attack, a clampdown on the hardline vigilantes -- the so-called pressure groups -- that intimidate pro-reform students, and an easing of restrictions on the media.

Fuelling these were the detention of some 1,000 students for their part in the unrest and the recent announcement that four people had been sentenced to death after secret trials for inciting violence. So far, the authorities have taken no such action against either the police or the extremists.

``After the events of July, the student movement may feel...that instead of condemning the real causes of the dreadful events, it is the students as a whole, the victims of such violence, who are getting the blame,'' said Ali Afshari, a member of the central committee of the Office to Consolidate Unity, Iran's biggest student group.

``They may gradually develop the fear that perhaps all this was pre-planned in order to deprive them of the limited freedoms they have gained through the years,'' Afshari told Reuters.

``In the coming six months we will surely witness a very active and even tense atmosphere in the universities,'' he said, adding that he and other mainstream student leaders could lose out to more radical elements. ``I think the officials should be the ones most deeply concerned in this regard.''


Among the casualties of this summer's unrest was the cozy relationship between moderate President Mohammad Khatami and the vast majority of students. Many of them actively supported his 1997 election campaign for a ``civil society'' within the existing Islamic system.

Those ties have been badly strained by the president's inability to restrain the hardline vigilantes or to punish those responsible for the attack on the dormitories.

The hardliners, meanwhile, have seen the full implications of the student protests: demands for greater freedom under the Islamic system would weaken the establishment's grip on religious interpretation, the source of much of their power.

The clerical apparatus immediately launched a full-scale campaign in mosques across Iran to disparage any attempt at Islamic revisionism and to justify the use of force in defence of its orthodox views.

In a sermon last week at Tehran's Friday prayers, chief conservative ideologue Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi summed up the new call to arms: ``If someone tells you he has a new interpretation of Islam, sock him in the mouth.''


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