History professor faces reduced charges after twice dodging death sentences for blasphemy

Saturday, July 3rd 2004, 9:56 am
By: News On 6

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ A prominent history professor who twice dodged a death sentence on blasphemy convictions was defiant Saturday against reduced charges in a new trial.

During the procedings, which were open for the first time in his case, Hashem Aghajari rejected the new charges of ``insulting Islamic sanctities, propagating against the ruling Islamic establishment'' and ``spreading lies for the purpose of inciting public opinion.''

Aghajari, a history professor at Tehran's Teachers Training University, was twice condemned to death on charges of blasphemy, insulting Islam and questioning clerical rule during a speech in June 2002. The sentence was overturned both times by the Supreme Court.

If convicted on the new charges, Aghajari could get between one to five years in jail. He has already served more than two years behind bars and complained Saturday that he spent 10 months in solitary confinement.

``I'm happy that after two years of psychological pressures for me in jail and psychological torture for my family ... an open trial is organized with reduced charges giving me the chance to defend myself against two years of accumulated cruelty and slander and propaganda even spread by the state-run radio and television network,'' he said.

Aghajari's family attended the session. His mother, Roghayeh Hosseinpour Ghanavati, was seen whispering to herself as she fingered prayer beads.

Aghajari said he had ``no hope'' of justice even from Mohammad Eslami, the new judge given the responsibility to investigate the charges against him. Previously, a hard-line court in Hamedan, western Iran, investigated the charges against Aghajari behind closed doors.

``There have been lots of ups and downs in my case, with pressure groups playing a role in it. I'm speaking hopelessly because I have no hope that you will be a neutral judge because of the conditions pressure groups have created,'' Aghajari told Eslami.

The judge agreed to a request by Aghajari and his lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, for more time to study the new indictments. The next trial session is scheduled for Monday.

In his speech in June 2002 in Hamedan, Aghajari infuriated hard-liners when he said that clerics' teachings on Islam were considered sacred simply because they were part of history.

His conviction on blasphemy charges and the death sentence handed down five months later prompted nationwide student demonstrations. Violent clashes with hard-line vigilantes made it a key episode in the power struggle between reformists and conservatives in Iran.

The protests ended only when Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered the judiciary to reconsider the verdict. The Supreme Court overturned the death sentence in February 2003 and returned the case to the lower court for review, which reinstated the verdict May 3. It wasn't clear when the Supreme Court overturned it again.