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Iranian Cleric Calls for 'Ruthless' Punishment of Protest Leaders

By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 27, 2009

TEHRAN, June 26 -- An influential Iranian cleric on Friday urged "ruthless" punishment, possibly including execution, for leaders of protests against a disputed presidential election, while President Obama intensified his criticism of a crackdown on the Iranian opposition and rejected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's demand for an apology.

Two weeks after Iranians turned out to vote in massive numbers, authorities moved on two fronts to halt continuing unrest over the results, warning that protest leaders could be subject to the death penalty under Islamic law but also creating a "special committee" to review the election process with participation from the two leading opposition candidates.

In a sermon at Tehran University before traditional Friday prayers, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a close associate of Iran's supreme leader, escalated the hard-line rhetoric that the state has adopted this week toward demonstrators, foreign news media and various "enemies," including the United States and Britain.

Saying that "unauthorized demonstrations" are against both national law and Islamic law because Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, "has advised against them," Khatami argued that a protester who engages in "destructive acts" could be considered a mohareb, or someone who wages war against God. "And Islam has said that a mohareb should receive the severest of punishments," he said.

"Accordingly, I call on the officials of the judicial branch to deal severely and ruthlessly with the leaders of the agitations, whose fodder comes from America and Israel, so that everyone learns a lesson from it," Khatami said, according to a translation by state radio. Under Islamic law, the punishment for waging war against God is death.

Iran's judiciary said Tuesday that a special court would be set up to make an example of "rioters" arrested during the demonstrations. According to Iranian state media, more than 450 have been arrested. International human rights groups say the number is higher and includes demonstrators, journalists and well-known dissidents who have long called for more political freedom in Iran.

In Washington, Obama condemned recent violence against protesters as "outrageous" and dismissed Ahmadinejad's demand Thursday that he apologize for similar previous comments. Obama suggested that it was Ahmadinejad who should be apologizing to Iranian victims and their families for the violent actions of security forces.

Speaking at the White House after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama said Iranian demonstrators have shown "bravery in the face of brutality," and he described the violence against them as "outrageous" and "unacceptable." If the Iranian government wants the respect of the international community, he said, "then it must respect the rights and heed the will of its people."

In response to questions, Obama said opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who asserts that he was denied victory in the June 12 election through fraud, appears to have "captured the imagination or the spirit of forces within Iran that were interested in opening up." He indicated that direct U.S. engagement with Iran over its nuclear program would have to wait until the situation there becomes clearer.

On Ahmadinejad's demand Thursday for an apology, Obama said, "I don't take Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements seriously about apologies, particularly given the fact that the United States has gone out of its way not to interfere with the election process in Iran." Instead, he said, "I would suggest that Mr. Ahmadinejad think carefully about the obligations he owes to his own people," notably "the families of those who've been beaten or shot or detained."

Merkel said Iran "cannot count on the world community turning a blind eye" to the violence.

Iran's Guardian Council, a supervisory body led by Shiite Muslim clerics and jurists that certifies election results, reiterated Friday that it has found no significant fraud in the election, which the Interior Ministry has said Ahmadinejad won with nearly 63 percent of the vote.

"After 10 days of examination, we did not see any major irregularities," a council spokesman, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, told the official Islamic Republic News Agency. The council is scheduled to complete an inquiry into the election by Monday.

But the council later announced the formation of a "special committee" to review the election process and invited participation by representatives of Mousavi and another opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi. The council gave the two candidates 24 hours to name their representatives. It said 10 percent of the ballot boxes would be recounted in the presence of the committee, which would then issue a report about the election. No deadline for the report was specified.

The council said the special committee would also include "political and social figures," notably Ali Akbar Velayati, who served as foreign minister when Mousavi was prime minister in the 1980s and who is now an adviser to Khamenei on international affairs.

There was no immediate response from Mousavi or Karroubi, who have criticized the Guardian Council. They have called on the council to annul the election and hold a new one.

In his Friday sermon, Khatami ruled that out. He denied that the election was rigged and said those who insist on nullifying it "should know that this idea will be fruitless."

Addressing thousands of chanting supporters, he harshly denounced various foreign governments, the United Nations and Western news media, which he accused of false reporting and "assisting the enemy." He told the gathering, "I do not know how they are free to roam around in the country."

Appealing for unity, Khatami said, "Let us not institutionalize grudges. . . . Let us have a united position against the foreigners who have prepared their sharp satanic teeth to loot the legacy of your martyrs."

The cleric, a member of the Assembly of Experts and a supporter of Ahmadinejad, claimed that protesters were responsible for the slaying of a young woman, Neda Agha Soltan, who has become an opposition icon since cellphone cameras captured her dying moments after she was shot last Saturday on a Tehran street.

"Take a look at the story of the lady who was killed for whom Mr. Obama sheds crocodile tears and the West has made a big story," he said. "Any logical individual who watches the film realizes that the work has been done by rioters themselves."

Khatami also asserted that the woman was killed in "a quiet alley" where security forces "would only arrest people" rather than shoot them. "The state does not kill people in such places," he said. "All signs and evidence show that they [protesters] were behind this murder. Now they make a hue and cry against the state. I am warning those liar media."

Arash Hejazi, an Iranian doctor who says he tried to help Agha Soltan, has told British news media that she was shot by a member of the pro-government Basij militia who was riding a motorcycle.

At Tehran's Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, dozens of friends, relatives and other well-wishers paid their respects at Agha Soltan's grave Friday, stopping briefly to utter prayers or place flowers before moving on, news agencies reported. The government has prohibited public mourning ceremonies for the young philosophy student.

"What sin did she commit?" asked a young woman tearfully as she prayed in front of the grave, Agence France-Presse reported. "Pray for our future," an elderly man said.

Branigin reported from Washington.

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