A clerical court sentenced popular reformist leader Abdollah Nouri to five years in prison today on charges of religious and political dissent after a trial that became a window on the struggle between liberals and conservatives in Iran. The court also ordered Nouri's liberal newspaper to shut down immediately.
Nouri, a former interior minister and key supporter of reformist President Mohammed Khatemi, was fined $5,000 and barred from publishing for five years. After receiving his sentence, he was taken directly to prison.
"Today, Abdollah Nouri paid a heavy cost for his reformist ideas," said Ali Hekmat, editor of Nouri's newspaper, Khordad. "With his strong defense against the court, he knew he would be sentenced to prison, but this did not prevent him from speaking the truth."
The Nouri trial has highlighted a fundamental rift in Iran as former revolutionaries from the 1970s have split on the issue of democratic reform. Khatemi, Nouri and others are pushing for political pluralism, freedom of expression and detente with the West. But the country's conservatives view such calls as a dilution of revolutionary and Islamic values and have branded many reformists as traitors.
As interior minister, Nouri angered conservatives by granting protest permits to a wide range of reformist student groups. He was impeached by Iran's conservative-led parliament last year, but that only fueled his popularity. The cleric was the top vote-getter in recent municipal elections in Tehran, and he was widely believed to be preparing a bid to become Iran's next speaker of parliament--a prospect that conservatives feared. His conviction today, however, makes him ineligible to run in February's election.
Today's verdict, which was widely expected, leaves no room for appeal other than for a pardon from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Aides to Nouri, who has regularly lambasted the court as illegitimate because it lies outside the authority of the country's constitution, said they would not request such a move.
"We will not seek a pardon from a court that we view as illegal," said Ali Reza Nouri, the cleric's brother and top aide. Abdollah Nouri "is prepared to pay the heavy costs of supporting freedom."
The charges Nouri faced were some of the most serious ever brought against a senior politician in Iran. They included publishing sacrilegious stories and opposing the teachings of Iran's revered revolutionary leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Nouri used his defense as an opportunity to mount a critical assault on the authority of the country's conservative clerical leadership.
President Khatemi had no immediate public response to the sentence. Reaction on the streets appeared muted, with reports of minor unrest in Nouri's home city of Isfahan but no signs of protests in Tehran.
"The sentence is unfair, of course, but we are too busy trying to make ends meet to worry too much about these things," said a grocery clerk in Tehran, reflecting the widespread concern with the country's deteriorating economy.
Khordad staffers, however, reported a flood of telephone calls in support of Nouri after Iranian state radio reported the news this afternoon. Hekmat, the editor, said the Khordad editorial team would publish a new daily with the same editorial line "as soon as the opportunity arises."
"Abdollah Nouri was a man who pursued the truth," Hekmat said, "and we pledge to continue pursuing the truth."
Observers predicted that the sentence against Nouri will only stoke his popularity. "It is fairly obvious that Nouri is going to gain even more support now," journalist Mehrdad Serjooie said. "This will elevate him even higher than he already was in the minds of the people."
In addition to Nouri, another leading reformist was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of questioning Islamic principles. Before his sentencing, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told reporters that Khatemi should intervene on Nouri's behalf.
"It is the president's duty to uphold the constitution, and the constitution has been violated," Shamsolvaezin said. "The people expect him not to just stand by."
CAPTION: Iranian journalists at the newspaper Khordad in Tehran publicize a clerical court's decision to shut down their operation and imprison their editor.