Religious death squads targeting Iranian intellectuals

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THE BODY of an intellectual was found in Iran yesterday, heightening fears that Islamic extremists are picking off the country's real or suspected liberals in a ghoulish campaign aimed at intimidating supporters of a more secular state.

Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh's body was discovered near a railway bridge in Tehran. He had apparently been strangled.

The case is far from isolated. On Wednesday, the day that Mr Pouyandeh was last seen alive, the body of another intellectual, Mohammad Mok-htari, a poet known for his antipathy to religious hardliners, was also discovered. Again, it appears he was strangled.

A third dissident, Javad Sharif was found dead last week in what are believed to be suspicious circumstances, while a fourth, Pirouz Davani, is missing and feared dead. No one has been charged for any of the deaths. And last month the opposition leader, Dariush Foruhar, and his wife, Parvaneh, were found stabbed to death in their Tehran home.

The President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, has ordered the police and intelligence services to step up investigations into the spate of killings. However, he has little authority over law and order under Iran's Islamic system and some secularists suspect the murders are intended to intimidate him as well as the writers and poets.

Mr Khatami won the presidential elections in May 1997 as an avowed candidate of the moderates and modernisers, seeking better ties with the West and even with the great enemy of Iran's Islamic revolution, the United States. Since then he has proved unable to protect all his supporters from the hardliners entrenched in the parliament. Iran's intelligence service, police and armed forces still report to the religious head, the "supreme leader", Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is widely regarded as a supporter of the President's critics.

Several of the murdered intellectuals are connected with a movement to revive an independent writers' association and have demanded greater freedom of expression from the religious authorities.