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Criticism mounting against powerful Iranian religious court

TEHRAN, March 8 (AFP) - Reformers stepped up the pressure on Iran's special religious court Monday amid growing public anger at one of the Islamic regime's most hardline institutions.

A reformist MP lashed out at Iran's all-powerful Special Court for Clergy (SCC) over its arrest of liberal cleric Mohsen Kadivar, who is increasingly being seen here as a political prisoner in a case that has sparked public demonstrations and widespread outrage.

"No one should be arrested for expressing his opinion," Qodratollah Nazarinia told the English-language Iran Daily.

"If there are any additional charges pending against Kadivar, the SCC must notify the public," he said.

Even conservative MP Ali Moalemi agreed that the SCC had failed to give a satisfactory explanation why Kadivar, a leading figure among Iran's reformers, had been jailed by order of the court last month.

"The SCC must provide proper explanations as to the reasons for Kadivar's arrest," he said.

Nazarinia stressed that the Iranian public have come to see Kadivar as a political prisoner being detained for his dissident speeches against the Islamic regime.

The vigorous debate over his arrest, a daily staple of newspapers here, marks a new freedom to criticise the Islamic regime under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, whose supporters handily defeated conservatives in last month's first-ever municipal elections here.

But the vague official statements about Kadivar's detention are signs that the hardline court, which operates behind closed doors and independently of the judiciary, has yet to embrace the spirit of democracy and openness that has marked Khatami's reformist agenda.

Nearly every day contradictory reports emerge in the press over Kandivar's detention and whether or not he will be allowed to hire a defence attorney.

The moderate Zan paper on Monday said Kadivar was due to be released in the next few days, citing parliamentary sources.

The pro-government newspaper Iran said Sunday that the trial had been postponed because Kadivar had insisted on hiring a private lawyer.

Conservative judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi told reporters last week that it was too early to comment on Kadivar's case because the investigation was not yet completed and the charges still not known.

But the SCC itself said Saturday that Kadivar had been arrested for "spreading false information and propaganda hostile to the regime."

Yet critics insist the liberal cleric, who has been fiercely critical of the Islamic regime, is being held simply for his dissident views.

Kadivar was arrested for "seeking freedom and fighting against the political power monopoly," said Akbar Ganji, another prominent liberal whose own newspaper was banned by the regime.

He taunted authorities by saying he was guilty of the same "crimes" himself and should be arrested, the Khordad newspaper reported last week.

The pro-government Jahan-e-Islam paper said Sunday that even if the SCC comes forward to announce charges, it will be "too late" because the Iranian public already believes Kadivar is a political prisoner. On Sunday several hundred students demonstrated in Tehran over Kadivar's arrest, defying calls from the jailed critic's family to postpone the rally over fears of violence.

The students chanted "Kadivar must be released" and "Death to the monopoly," a reference to the regime's hardliners.

The public criticism is unprecedented for the SCC, established in 1985 by the Islamic republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The court is charged with trying cases involving the Islamic regime's clerics and has in the past been well above any public condemnation.

But along with reports on the case, newspapers here have been full of often dense arguments about the court's legitimacy -- something unthinkable before Khatami's 1997 election.

Some 200 journalists signed a petition saying Kadivar's arrest was an unconstitutional "offense" to Iran's writers and intellectuals and the streets of Tehran have been plastered with thousands of pro-Kadivar posters.

The SCC has said typically little about the uproar, though on Saturday the Iran paper cited a court representative who perhaps best summed up its powerful and unclear ways.

"Ordinary people lack the knowledge to differentiate between what is permissible and what is not," he said.


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