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Iran says would-be assassins now back in jail

By Jon Hemming

TEHRAN, Oct 24 (Reuters) - The justice department in Iran's capital city said on Tuesday all the would-be assassins of key reform strategist Saeed Hajjarian were now in jail, a day after the department's chief said they had all been let go.

Hajjarian, a former deputy intelligence minister turned pro- reform thinker, remains partially paralysed since he was shot in the cheek in March. Eight men, among them members of the security forces, were sentenced to jail terms after the assassination bid.

But when an MP visited a prison in the southern city of Shiraz last week, one of the men supposed to be incarcerated in the jail was not there.

"The accused are kept in custody before trial." explained Tehran justice department chief Abbasali Alizadeh on Monday.

"After hearings are held and sentences given, the accused may be released from custody pending an appeal."

"It is nobody's business where they are now," the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.

But on Tuesday the same justice department released a statement which either refuted Alizadeh or indicated a swift reversal of the men's fortunes.

"At the present moment, the accused in the case of the attempted assassination of Hajjarian are in a detention centre," said the statement quoted by IRNA.

Reformist politicians were outraged at the apparent release of the assailants. Authorities say the eight men were a group of religious fanatics, acting independently of the state.

But Hajjarian's pro-reform allies insist the assassination plot could not have moved forward without backing from within the conservative establishment and the security services.

They point out that high-speed motorcycles used in the attack and once a favourite getaway in political killings, are now forbidden to Iranians except for security force members.

And they blame hardline theologians, who had labelled Hajjarian an "outsider," and even an apostate, for inciting the attack and related political violence.

His outspoken newspaper, Sobh-e Emrouz, had tried to expose what it has said is a circle within the security forces linked to a series of political murders in recent years.

The newspaper has since been banned by hardliners who dominate the judiciary and are bitterly opposed to the liberal reform policies of Iran's moderate President Mohammad Khatami.


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