By Kay Armin Serjoie and Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 18, 2009
TEHRAN, July 17 -- Thousands of opposition demonstrators took to the streets in defiance of a government crackdown Friday after a powerful cleric, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, publicly called for the release of people arrested in protests following last month's disputed election and urged authorities to ease restrictions on the news media.
Addressing a huge crowd in a sermon at traditional Friday prayers, Rafsanjani issued an appeal for national unity but stopped short of endorsing the officially proclaimed landslide reelection victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an omission that served to further widen a rift within the country's Shiite Muslim hierarchy over the results of the June 12 election.
Among those attending the sermon at Tehran University were opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, who ran against Ahmadinejad. Mousavi, 67, a former prime minister who says he was cheated of victory through massive vote-rigging, was making a rare public appearance since security forces cracked down on demonstrations in support of his claims and arrested hundreds of protesters and opposition supporters. Karrubi, 71, a Shiite cleric and former parliamentary speaker, was roughed up by plainclothes security forces on his way to the sermon, his Web site reported.
Shortly after the sermon, thousands of Mousavi supporters demonstrated around Tehran University.
Members of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and the pro-government Basij militia used tear gas and batons to disperse the demonstrators, eyewitnesses reported.
"After tear gas was used outside the university, the wind blew it in and [it affected] everyone, including Basijis and cops," a witness said. "People started coughing and tears started running out of their eyes. This irritated everyone, and people were saying, 'This is a shame and a disgrace that prayers are being tear gassed.' "
Holding up posters of Mousavi, thousands gathered on Enghelab, or Revolution, Street and shouted "Death to the dictator" and "Illegitimate government, leave," witnesses said. In his sermon, Rafsanjani, 74, who was one of the main founders of the Islamic Republic and served as president from 1989 to 1997, said the country faces a "crisis" and appeared to back the legitimacy of Mousavi's protest movement.
"I hope that today's Friday prayers will be a turning point for us to pass this crisis," he said, "and that once again we will be able to witness healthy competition and the choosing of whoever the people want."
He strongly supported several of Mousavi's key demands and called for a rebuilding of trust as he launched a proposal to solve the crisis. He called for more freedom of speech and less government control over the heavily restricted local and foreign news media.
"We should not limit our media, which have got legal permission for their activities," he said. "They should be able to work within the framework of the laws."
And he said unity should be achieved by allowing different political opinions.
"There should be a climate where people can speak their mind and where reason prevails," he said, asking for political groups to act within the law.
Rafsanjani made clear that he has consulted influential clerics and experienced politicians who share his views. But his comments suggested that he remains at odds with the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in a June 19 sermon at Friday prayers urged all Iranians to fully accept Ahmadinejad's victory, strongly denounced the protests and rejected allegations of vote-rigging.
Erdbrink reported from Amsterdam.