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Iranian cleric's trial latest skirmish in reformist-conservative war

TEHRAN, April 15 (AFP) - The trial of a liberal Iranian cleric accused of spreading propoganda hostile to the Islamic regime is the latest skirmish in the long-running war between the country's conservative and moderate factions.

The trial, which opened Wednesday, comes amid a new and fierce offensive launched by the powerful conservative faction against supporters of reformist President Mohammad Khatami and moderate Iranian newspapers.

Khatami on Thursday insisted that freedom of thought and expression was "a must" for society, even as supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned against "the enemies inside" whom he said were more dangerous than those abroad.

Mohsen Kadivar, considered a leading lights of the reform movement in Iran, vigorously rejected Wednesday charges laid against him by a special court for the clergy that he was an "enemy of the state" for spreading propaganda .

The Iranian press published long accounts of the hearing Thursday, with several commenting on its "semi-public" nature as, in a rare sign of openness, members of Kadivar's family and several journalists were allowed in court.

The tribunal was created in 1985 by the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to try members of the Shiite Moslem clergy -- a bastion of conservatism -- and usually proceedings are conducted behind closed doors.

Kadivar, a cleric and university professor opposed to the religious hardliners who control Iran's police and judiciary, has written a number of articles calling for Iran's political life to have more autonomy from religion. But on Wednesday he rejected the accusations against him and charged that his trial was unconstitutional and the court incompetent to try his case.

"I outright reject the baseless charge that I have disseminated false propaganda and stirred the public against the state," he said. "Investigation into political and press offenses must be carried out in the presence of a jury and by a qualified court of the judiciary. The special court for clergy is not a part of the judiciary."

His lawyer, the leftist Ayatollah Hossein Mussavi Tabrizi, told the court that the writing of an article "should not be confused with a propaganda campaign."

Kadivar has been seen as a "political prisoner" since the court ordered his detention in March in a case that sparked demonstrations nationwide. His trial opened only days after the closure of moderate newspaper Zan for publishing a message from former empress Farah Diba, wife of the ousted shah, to mark the Iranian new year.

Kadivar's case is also the second in a year that has cast the spotlight on the deep divisions in the regime, following the trial of former Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, who was convicted last year of corruption.

However Kadivar's trial -- unlike Karbaschi's -- is not being broadcast on radio or television, lessening the intensity of its effect.

Karbaschi's trial also lasted for several months, while the Kadivar case looks set to end shortly after the judge promised to issue a verdict next week.


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