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Iranian students, hard-liners brawl over reform professor

A student demonstration in support of a popular reformist professor who was sentenced to die for blaspheming Islam turned bloody Monday when extremists supporting Iran's theocracy clashed with the students at Tehran's Sharif University.

One student speaker suffered a cracked skull and cuts and was carried off by friends during the attack by roughly 500 members of the hard-line militia group Ansareh Hezbollah, or "Friends of the Party of God," witnesses said. A number of other students also were injured.

Authorities' nervousness over the potential for widespread civil revolt is evident. Besides keeping protesters on campus, officials have banned foreign media from covering demonstrations over the past three days. A request by organizers of the protest to open Monday's demonstration to the public was rejected, although students from other universities were allowed to attend.

A critical remark about supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei apparently sparked the fight at the university gymnasium, where nearly 5,000 students had gathered to rally for history professor Hashem Aghajari. He has been convicted of apostasy, or turning away from his Shiite faith, for challenging Iran's clerical rule during a speech in the western city of Hamadan last August. Critics insist that the Nov. 6 ruling could have been issued only with the approval of the highest-ranking clerics.

On Sunday, Khamenei sought to defuse tensions between the reformist and right-wing camps by ordering the judiciary to review and rescind Aghajari's sentence, which includes 74 lashes by a leather whip, eight years' imprisonment and a 10-year ban on teaching. Judiciary officials say the Islamic Republic's highest court will review the sentence. Aghajari has refused to appeal it.

One protest organizer said Khamenei's intervention did not go far enough.

"Our problem is not only the revision of the death sentence but freedom of speech and freedom in general," Abdollah Momeni, a leader of the Office to Consolidate Unity student group, told fellow demonstrators Monday. Students chanted overtly political slogans, including "Free political prisoners" and "Death to the Taliban in Kabul and Tehran."

The extremists chanted "Khamenei is the supreme leader, he's the representative of our prophet" during the ensuing melee, which sent thousands of students fleeing toward the university gates. Police officers, who routinely have prevented student demonstrators from spilling out onto the streets, refused to let them pass, witnesses said. The students and extremists subsequently dispersed across campus.

There were conflicting reports as to whether the Ansareh Hezbollah members truly were university students or whether they pretended to be to get onto the campus.

The judiciary, whose members are considered to be at the extreme edge of Iran's right wing, appeared unmoved by the public outcry about Aghajari's case, and the head of the judiciary complained that the case was being politicized.

"The problem in this country is that we look at everything from a factional point of view and use every verdict for political objectives," state-run television quoted the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Sharudi, as saying during a meeting Monday with fellow jurists.

More politicians and academicians are joining in criticizing the ruling, using the opportunity to speak out in favor of freedom of speech. One of those was Zahra Rahnavard, the head of Tehran's al Zahra University, whose comments were published Monday in Iran News, a state-run, English-language daily newspaper.

"Thoughts need to be criticized, analyzed and debated," said Rahnavard, who added that she did not agree with some of Aghajari's views. "Treating them harshly, like sentencing those who express them to prison terms or death, is the most inappropriate possible way to deal with them."

Over the past 11 days, protesters have urged the ruling clerics to ease their control over the Islamic republic, rather than maintain a dictatorship rivaling that of the former shah.

Hard-line critics, however, say the conflict is not a problem with clerical rule, but the result of reformers flouting the law.