Ayatollah says Rushdie can be shown no mercy

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HOPES for the speedy emergence of Salman Rushdie from his cocoon of security and re-entry into a more normal life were dashed yesterday by a reiteration of the fatwa, or religious edict, calling for his death. The edict was reissued by the highest spiritual authority in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The statement was harsher and more uncompromising than ever. 'The fatwa . . . on the apostate Salman Rushdie must be implemented without a doubt and it shall be implemented . . . It is the duty of all Muslims who can reach this mercenary writer today to remove this harmful being from the path of Muslims,' he declared on the fourth anniversary of the issuing of the fatwa by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Ayatollah's denunciations on the anniversary of the fatwa have become almost a ritual. As spiritual leader, there is little he can do to implement them. The head of state, President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has said that the fatwa stands, but has shown no desire to pursue it.

Mr Rushdie demonstrated his resolve to continue appearing in public by delivering an address at a service at King's College Chapel, Cambridge. His theme was that of freedom from religious fanaticism. 'Just as (this chapel) may be taken as a symbol of what is best about religion, so the fatwa has become a symbol of what is worst. It is . . . a straightforward terrorist threat,' he told the congregation.

In London, a Foreign Office spokesman referred to comments made by the Foreign Office minister, Douglas Hogg, this month. Calling the fatwa 'infamous and outrageous', Mr Hogg said 'we have consistently condemned this incitement to murder as an unacceptable violation of the most elementary principles and obligations that govern relations between states'. It was 'a human rights issue of great importance'.

An Islamic charity has offered dollars 2m ( pounds 1.4m) for anyone killing the author of The Satanic Verses, which Muslims regard as blasphemous. Ayatollah Khamenei said the edict against Mr Rushdie was 'irrevocable'.

Recently President Rafsanjani said the fatwa could not be lifted because Khomeini, who issued it, was dead. This was seen as an attempt by the President to distance himself from the fatwa. But hopes of easing tension between Britain and Iran over the issue have evaporated as a result of Ayatol lah Khamenei's tone. What seems to have incensed him was Mr Rushdie's self-confidence in appearing at semi-public gatherings.