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Iranian reformer found guilty after show trial

THE BATTLE for Iran's destiny intensified last night with the conviction of the leading reformer Abdollah Nouri by a Special Court for the Clergy in Tehran.

Hero to Tehran's reformist students, owner of a pro-reform newspaper, and the right-hand man of President Mohammed Khatami, Mr Nouri encapsulates Iran's reform movement. He is by far the most powerful man to have fallen victim to Iran's conservative courts.

There will be fears that the students may take to the streets of Tehran in protest. When the conservative courts closed a pro-reform newspaper this summer, hardline Islamic vigilantes used student protests as a pretext to attack the universities. At least one student was killed, and Mr Khatami's government has urged students not to make public protests at Mr Nouri's trial, but to make their feelings known at the ballot box.

It was unclear last night on which of the multitude of charges Mr Nouri had been found guilty. But once Iran's increasingly desperate conservatives had gambled on putting him on trial, the verdict was never in doubt. The charges, linked to articles published by Mr. Nouri's paper, included insulting Iran's revolutionary government. The judge is expected to hand down a verdict in a week or so; the jury found there were no mitigating circumstances.

It is no secret that the the special court, which answers only to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is in the pocket of conservatives. Mr Nouri's trial felt like a show trial - the prosecutor even complained that his speeches did not get as much coverage in the Iranian press as he wanted.

But it was Mr Nouri who stole the show. The conservatives played into his hands by granting him so public a platform. In hearing after hearing, he attacked Iran's Islamic system, voicing criticisms no one has dared make in public before. He insisted that even the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was not above the rule of law, and that hardliners could not justify their policies solely on the words of Khomeini.

From the dock, Mr Nouri broke every taboo of Iranian political life, insisting it was not a crime to advocate improved relations with the US, Iran's "Great Satan". When he spoke in defence of charges of supporting Iran's leading dissident, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the man Khomeini once anointed his successor but now discredited for his support of reform, the court gagged Mr Nouri.

It seems unlikely the hardliners will risk the political fall-out from giving Mr Nouri a heavy sentence. What they will have achieved is to bar him from the parliamentary election due in February, which looked set to put him in the Speaker's chair in parliament, and to close his newspaper, Khordad.

But the conservatives have fallen once again into the trap of thinking only of the short-term. The hapless hardliners have just served the reform movement up with another martyr.