4   December   AFP

Deathrow academic strikes out at accusers in open letter

In an open letter to the press Wednesday, Iranian dissident academic Hashim Aghajari took on his conservative opponents, mocking his death sentence last month for blasphemy as a political verdict.

Aghajari, who drew the anger of the country's religious establishment when he delivered a speech last July questioning clerics' right to rule in Iran, dismissed his death sentence as "resembling a political communique rather than a court decision."

Even as Iran's hardline judiciary said it would review his sentence on Monday, Aghajari accused the judge who handed him his death sentence on November 6 of "not respecting the principle of impartiality."

He said it was "certain" he would be acquitted in a public trial "where popular feelings will be taken into account."

The judiciary's decision Monday to review his case after Aghajari's lawyer filed an appeal ended a tense standoff between the courts and the disabled dissident whose death sentence sparked two weeks of street protests by Iranian students last month.

Eager to cool passions, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had on November 17 ordered the judiciary to review the sentence widely seen by critics as being politically motivated and part of a wider clash between reformists and hardliners.

Meanwhile, the Organisation of Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution (OMIR), a leftist-reformist group of which Aghajari is a member, hit out at British writer Salman Rushdie who recently published an article in the New York Times, critical of the Iranian regime.

The group said in a statement that Rushdie, who was subject to a death sentence by the Islamic republic's late founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was looking "to provoke fanaticism and sow discord".

The OMIR warned that the case of Aghajari "does not discredit the decree of Imam Khomeini against the blasphemous writer and does not clear him of his guilt."

Rushdie, born in Bombay, India, to a Muslim family, spent some 10 years in hiding in Britain after Khomeini issued his religious decree or fatwa against him in 1989 for writing "The Satanic Verses."

The founder of the Islamic republic charged the book blasphemed the Muslim prophet Mohamed.

However under President Mohammad Khatami, Iran withdrew its backing in 1999 for the fatwa against Rushdie as it repaired its diplomatic relations with Britain.