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Liberal Iran publisher says court verdict biased

By Mehrdad Balali

TEHRAN, Sept 26 (Reuters) - The publisher of a pro-reform Iranian newspaper, sentenced to jail on a blasphemy conviction, sharply attacked the verdict on Sunday as politically motivated and demanded a new, impartial hearing. (Related photo)

``The court was biased and influenced by a certain political faction. Their approach was more political than legal, and marked by double standards,'' Latif Safari, the director of the banned Neshat daily, told a news conference.

``We want the case to be investigated in a neutral court in the presence of a jury,'' said Safari, flanked by his lawyer and Neshat's senior editors.

The hardline press tribunal sentenced Safari on Saturday to two-and-a-half years in prison and banned him from practicing journalism for five years after he was convicted of ``insulting basic tenets of the Koran and sacred values'' and fanning a student unrest in the capital in July.

It had already suspended the outspoken newspaper early this month after it printed articles opposing capital punishment in Islam and urging supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to stay out of factional politics.

The charges, which also included insults against senior conservative politicians and police officials, also led to a final ban against Neshat, the most flamboyant of a number of liberal dailies that have thrived under President Mohammad Khatami's cultural opening policies.

Several other charges are pending against the daily and are expected to be investigated in the coming days.

Neshat was popular with the youth and intellectuals and had an estimated readership of around 200,000 - impressive by Iranian standards.

The ban against Neshat followed months of conservative attacks against the maverick newspaper and calls for its closure. Neshat had the same editorial team as two other liberal dailies, which have also been closed for their outspoken views.


The verdict is seen as a new blow to reformers in their political battle against hardline conservatives, and comes ahead of the crucial parliamentary elections in February which Khatami's allies hoped to win with the help of pro-reform dailies - their main publicity tool.

Khatami's supporters were already reeling from the closure of another pro-reform newspaper in August for printing what it had said was a confidential plan by hardliners to try to muzzle the press.

Safari said he had filed a suit against the presiding judge Saeed Mortazavi. ``Mr. Mortazavi is affiliated with a group in the heart of the conservative camp. He has been working in coordination with this faction in their campaign against the reformist press,'' he charged.

The judge is unpopular among liberal journalists because of his firm stand against press violations, especially those stemming from challenges to religious values.


Neshat's lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh described the sentencing as ``heavy, and lacking any legal or religious basis.''

``They have been investigating my client without the presence of a jury. The atmosphere of the court was intimidating, and the judge would not let us talk. We will appeal the sentence,'' he said.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezi, the newspaper's editor-in-chief who has also been summoned to court, said he took responsibility for the charges and offered to go to prison instead of Safari.

He urged Iran's new judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi to fundamentally reform the judicial system, which has been accused by moderates of being too heavily influenced by the conservative ideology.

``The head of the judiciary should conduct a surgery and rid the system of hardliners in its folds. I am optimistic about reform in the judiciary. Mr. Shahroudi has a new thinking,'' he said.

Hashemi-Shahroudi, appointed a month ago, has promised to revamp the judiciary and has already replaced several hardliners with more low-key officials as his aides.


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