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Iran's Supreme Court lifts death sentence imposed on university professor

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ Iran's Supreme Court has lifted the death sentence ordered in the case of a university professor whose sentencing provoked nationwide demonstrations, one of the judges who heard his appeal said Friday.

Hashem Aghajari, a history professor at Tehran's Teachers Training University, had been condemned to death for insulting Islam and questioning clerical rule during a speech in June.

``The death sentence against Aghajari has been revoked by a majority of votes by the review judges. Three out of four of the judges voted to revoke the sentence,'' said Ayatollah Mohammad Sajjadi, one of the judges who heard the appeal in the Supreme Court in Qom.

``The decision came after weeks of careful study and scrutinizing of Aghajari's entire speech. Three out of four judges decided that the charges against Aghajari was not compatible with his speech,'' said Sajjadi.

He said the fourth judge opposed the lifting the sentence.

Hard-line clerics warned this month that they would execute Hashem Aghajari themselves if the court overturned the death sentence. It was not clear Friday what they intended to do.

Aghajari's sentencing last November provoked the biggest student protests in Iran in three years, and highlighted the power struggle between the country's liberals and hard-liners.

The parliament denounced the verdict as ``disgusting'' and President Mohammad Khatami said it ``should never have been issued.''

But hard-liners defended the verdict. Conservatives, who dominate government bodies such as the judiciary and police, oppose reformists allied to Khatami, accusing them of undermining the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

In his speech last June, Aghajari infuriated hard-line clerics when he asked why only clerics were authorized to interpret Islam. He said that each new generation should be able to interpret the faith.

Aghajari initially said he would not appeal against the death sentence, challenging the judiciary to carry it out. But his lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, filed an appeal on Dec. 2 despite his client's objections.
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