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Khatami admits 'lack of power'

By Guy Dinmore in Tehran
Financial Times (London)
November 27, 2000

President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, his pro- reform policies under severe attack from hardline opponents, on Sunday admitted he was powerless to prevent violations of the constitution and criticised the conservative-controlled judiciary for its handling of political and press cases.

Addressing a special commission set up to monitor implementation of the constitution, Mr Khatami's frank speech confirmed his public image of a popular but at the same time relatively powerless president.

He said that after three and a half years in office, he had to declare in public the limits to his authority in safeguarding the constitution, the mantra of his pro-reform policies. But at the same time, he attacked the judiciary's handling of press and political trials, saying they should be held in public before a jury that reflected the views of the people.

Since their overwhelming defeat by reformist supporters of the president in parliamentary elections last February, the conservative establishment has hit back by shutting down some 25 pro-reform publications and putting on trial about 50 activists, some behind closed doors without a jury.

Iran is due to hold presidential elections next May and Mr Khatami has not made clear whether he will run for a second term, although aides say they do expect him to be a candidate and to win by a wide margin.

Mr Khatami's frustrations are especially shared by the student movement that backed him in 1997 and has so far listened to his pleas for calm. Several thousand students packed a sports hall in Tehran's Amir Kabir University on Sunday to hear speakers directly attack the judiciary and even question the powers of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who in recent months has shifted towards the conservative establishment.

Ali Afshari, leader of the Office to Foster Unity, the main pro-reform student organisation, dared to call for a referendum on whether the powers of the supreme leader should be above the constitution. Mr Afshari said a minority of the ruling Shia Muslim clerics were abusing their power.

Some speakers also expressed their support for Mohammad Ali Montazeri, a Grand Ayatollah, who is under house arrest in Qom and is the main clerical rival of the supreme leader. Students chanting "Death to Dictatorship" marched towards the campus gates after the rally, but dispersed when confronted by police.


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