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Online Ayatollah: Isolated Iranian Dissident Speaks Out on Web

By Geneive Abdo
International Herald Tribune
July 29, 2000

QOM, Iran - Under house arrest in the Islamic Republic he helped establish, Iran's most prominent dissident, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, has broken out of seclusion via cyberspace. His site on the World Wide Web, www.montazeri.com, offers everything from a portrait of the cleric standing on a scenic hilltop with his cane, to his latest declarations, in Persian, on politics and religion.

Open the site and a counter reveals the number of visitors since he discovered cyberspace a few months ago. One day this week the number was 14,810, a respectable figure for a man who has been confined to his home and surrounding garden in this holy city since 1997.

Ayatollah Montazeri and his loyalists are accustomed to finding their own way to liberation.

When he was exiled to the desert by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi 25 years ago, 30,000 followers made the long, arduous journey to visit him. When he was imprisoned periodically, his theology students issued underground bulletins of his latest religious decrees.

The ayatollah's wit is apparent on the net: He has included quotes from Iranian leaders who once praised him but are now responsible for his house arrest. ''I'm proud that such a person exists in the Islamic Republic,'' reads a quote from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Also featured are photographs of his demolished office, after hard-line thugs broke in. Smeared on the wall is a slogan describing him as ''heretic of the age.''

Ayatollah Montazeri has been ostracized for many ideas, including his belief that the post of supreme leader should be decided in a national election. The supreme leader now is chosen by the Assembly of Experts, a body dominated by conservatives clerics.

Corresponding with the ayatollah, who was once in line to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the republic, is a simple matter. A follower need only write him an e-mail, asking his advice on a religious or political issue. One of his sons downloads the questions and groups them according to subjects. Then the cleric will issue an opinion on those questions of most concern.

Ever since Ayatollah Montazeri publicly questioned the religious credentials of the country's supreme leader, he has been virtually incommunicado here. No one is allowed to visit him, apart from relatives. Guards are posted around the clock outside his house to monitor anyone who enters.

Many Iranians wonder why the authorities have not found a way to log him off the net.

''Maybe technology has finally given him the freedom he has been denied for nearly three decades,'' a supporter said.

''We don't think the authorities can pull the plug on his Web site, because they probably would have done so by now.''


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