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Iran Judiciary Shuts Last Two Reformist Papers

By Ali Raiss-Tousi

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's hard-line judiciary shut down the last two major national newspapers from the reformist camp Thursday, bringing to 16 the number of publications banned this week. Photo here

The two newspapers, including a leading daily published by a brother of President Mohammad Khatami, were the last hit in a wave of closures that began Sunday.

``Two separate statements made the justice department of Tehran said the two dailies had been informed to stop publication due to violation of the press law,'' the official IRNA news agency said.

Reformers fear the press crackdown is part of a larger campaign by hard-liners to end the movement for social and political change launched under Khatami.

Khatami called for calm in the face of the brewing crisis.

``In times of social crisis or tension, everyone should act with wisdom and self-control and work toward curbing tension and defending the interests of society within the framework of laws while...remaining faithful to principles,'' state television quoted Khatami as saying.

``Those...who want to act in today's world without respecting the people and the popular will are mistaken,'' Khatami told members of the reformist-dominated Tehran city council.

Students on campuses across Iran earlier held peaceful protests against the bans and thousands boycotted classes in support of press freedom.

The banning of Mosharekat daily, run by the president's brother Mohammad Reza Khatami, and of the outspoken Sobh-e Emrouz, followed the closure without trial of 14 other pro-reform dailies and journals.

Judiciary, Government Clash

Tehran's justice department, controlled by the clerical establishment, said Thursday the original bans were in response to articles that ``disparaged Islam and the religious elements of the Islamic revolution.''

The judicial body defended the crackdown and criticized the Culture Ministry, responsible for the once-flourishing press, for not taking action against the newspapers itself.

``If the ministry had performed its duties...the judiciary would not have been forced to take legal action in order to defend religious principles,'' it said in a statement.

The Culture Ministry, which is loyal to President Khatami, said earlier this week the press closures were unlawful and called for an immediate lifting of the press bans.

Officials also closed Ava, a journal close to top dissident cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, under house arrest since 1997 for criticizing Iran's system of supreme clerical rule.

The bans, which have hit 11 dailies and five journals, have so far not provoked the impassioned response that greeted the closure in July of the reformist daily Salam.

Then, a pro-democracy rally was set upon by the security forces and hard-line vigilantes, touching off the worst unrest since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

More than 1,500 students were arrested after six days of unrest and at least two of them are now on death row after conviction by the feared Revolutionary Court.

Reformers Fearful

Reformers are worried that the bans and propaganda against reform by the state broadcast monopoly, controlled by hard-liners appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could prepare the ground for a further crackdown.

Leaflets are being discreetly distributed in Tehran warning of a campaign of terror and a possible coup d'etat planned by a ''crisis committee'' run by some commanders of the security forces and elements of the state radio and television.

The judiciary's press clampdown came after newspapers started asking questions about the ``crisis committee.''

Thousands of students boycotted classes Wednesday in defense of freedom of expression. Protests were held at university campuses in Tehran and a dozen other cities.

The students chanted slogans backing freedom of the press and denounced state television for what they said was political bias. The protests were peaceful and caused no serious incident.

Khamenei said last week some reformist newspapers had been turned into ``bases of the enemy,'' remarks widely seen here as heralding the campaign against the independent press.


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