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Reformist Iranian daily answers anti-Islam charges

By Ali Raiss-Tousi

TEHRAN, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Iran's leading pro-reform newspaper, already under suspension, went on trial on Monday on charges of insulting Islamic values and spreading propaganda against the state.

Press Court Judge Saeed Mortazavi rejected defence claims that his pre-trial order to close the daily Neshat early this month was illegal, and ordered the publisher to drop his protest or face five days in jail for contempt of court.

``Jail me for five years, but abide by the law,'' publisher Latif Safari told the court.

``The forced closure of Neshat without a court hearing in the presence of a jury was unlawful, and if you want to proceed with this hearing in this manner, then there is no need for our presence,'' he said.

A total of 74 charges against Neshat, including police complaints of defamation, are under review by the court, which has the power to ban the newspaper and fine or jail the editors.

It can also ban members of the editorial team, who have already had two other dailies closed down, from further journalistic activity.

The closure of the outspoken Neshat marked the latest blow by the conservative-led judiciary against liberal newspapers which have thrived in a climate of greater freedom granted by moderate President Mohammad Khatami.

It followed a firestorm of criticism from conservatives who accused the newspaper of opposing the Islamic principle of retribution, summed up in the injunction ``an eye for an eye,'' in a recent article against capital punishment.

The clerical establishment also said publication of an open letter from a veteran opposition politician asking supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to stay out of factional politics had insulted Iran's Islamic system.

At first, Neshat's editors thought they had defused the crisis by publishing an apology as agreed with the new leadership of the judiciary. But days later, Judge Mortazavi stepped in to ban the newspaper pending a hearing.

Legal analysts said Neshat's best defence was to try to draw out the proceedings until September 23, when a new and more liberal press jury is expected to be sworn in.

But Mortazavi -- who doubles as prosecutor under the Iranian system -- appeared intent on moving the chaotic hearing forward as quickly as possible, holding sessions through the noon prayers and pledging to keep the court in session until late in the day.


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