Iranian cleric sentenced to jail, banished; Reformist demanded end to authoritarian rule


Iran's most powerful religious court imposed a five-year jail term and a five-year banishment from political activity yesterday on a Muslim cleric, Abdullah Nouri, who has won wide popular support with demands for an end to authoritarian rule by the religious hierarchy.

The court also ordered the immediate closing of the newspaper run by the cleric, Khordad, which has been one of the most effective voices of the country's increasingly impatient democratic movement. It also imposed a fine of 15 million rials, equivalent to $5,000.

The sentence for the 50-year-old cleric included 74 lashes with a braided leather whip, but under complex sentencing rules, this was set aside in favor of an alternate punishment of a year in jail, to be served concurrently with his five-year term.

In addition, Nouri, who has been compared by Iranian reformers with Martin Luther, the 16th-century German cleric who was excommunicated after challenging the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, was barred from having any role in publishing or writing for publication for five years. In official terms, this effectively makes a nonperson of a politician who is seen by many Iranians as the bravest of all standard-bearers for democratic reform.

Nouri, who had been the leading reform candidate in parliamentary elections scheduled for February, was led from the courtroom by armed guards and taken directly to Evin Prison, the grim mountainside fortress where many of the shah's allies were imprisoned and executed after the 1979 Islamic revolution. In recent years, many of its inmates have been former revolutionaries like Nouri who have fallen afoul of conservatives determined to uphold a hard-line version of Islamic rule.

The route to the prison through the northern suburbs of Tehran, the capital, a distance of about a mile, was lined with police apparently called out to deter demonstrations in support of Nouri, residents of the area said by telephone. The cleric's supporters demanded that President Mohammed Khatami, another reformist cleric, step in to rescue Nouri.

But it was not clear that Khatami, a close ally and a friend of Nouri, had the power to intervene. The 53-year-old president, who won nearly 70 percent of the 30 million votes cast in 1997, has been walking a narrow line politically, seeking incremental reforms, but virtually checkmated by conservatives allied to the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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