Leading journalist arrested amid media crackdown in Iran

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A top pro-reform journalist who had been probing the murders of five dissidents by Intelligence Ministry agents has been detained.

The arrest of Akbar Ganji appeared to be the latest attempt by hard-liners, who dominate Iran's judiciary, to curb the liberal press.

In a related development, the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani, said the editors and publishers of 22 newspapers, mostly liberal, had expressed concern about the condemnation of the reformist press by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ganji was summoned to court in Tehran Saturday to answer charges that his articles had violated the law. He left the court under a police escort. Court sources said he was being taken to the capital's Evin prison.

His lawyer, Gholam-Ali Riyahi, told reporters that two judges had issued the order for Ganji's arrest, citing his articles and attendance at a controversial conference recently held in Berlin.

Ganji had been probing the murders of five dissidents in the fall of 1998, which the Intelligence Ministry later blamed on "rogue agents."

His articles - which appeared in several newspapers, among them Fath and Sobh-e-Emrooz - suggested the killings were ordered by senior hard-liners in the ruling Islamic establishment.

Before entering the court, Ganji told reporters that he, and others like him, were being imprisoned instead of those behind the murders.

"This is the price I have to pay to pursue the case of the murders," he said. "But the future is bright. No one created the reforms and nobody can stop them."

Ganji's arrest, which was widely expected, is seen as part of an effort by Islamic hard-liners to crack down on the greater freedoms enjoyed by press since the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami.

Culture Minister Mohajerani told a news conference that a squad of newspaper executives came to see him earlier Saturday about the supreme leader's comment.

Khamenei, a hard-liner, told a large crowd in a Tehran mosque on Thursday that 15 to 20 newspapers were "bases of the enemy" and undermining the principles of the Islamic revolution of 1979.

"They (the publishers) complained about the leader's use of the word 'enemies' and told me that if they felt the result of their work were beneficial to the enemy, then they would voluntarily close their newspapers," Mohajerani said.

"I know and I am sure that none of them are enemies and they see the leader as a kind father. They have asked me to arrange a meeting with the leader and the president," Mohajerani said.

Nearly every leading reformist journalist has been summoned to court for questioning in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, the judiciary upheld the conviction of Mahmoud Shams, editor-in-chief of the reformist Asr-e-Azadegan daily, who was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for "insulting religious sanctities."

Ganji was among several journalists who attended last week's conference on reform in Iran in Berlin. Hard-liners were outraged after state-run television, which is controlled by conservatives, broadcast footage of an Iranian woman dancing and other participants chanting slogans against Iran. Women are not allowed to dance in public in Iran.

Khatami made his strongest attack yet on the hard-liners on Saturday.

The usually soft-spoken president condemned the broadcast of the Berlin conference as provocative. The conference was neither all bad nor all good, he told a meeting of education officials.

"Those who say that reforms are against the principles of the revolution are pushing society toward ruin and creating the grounds for dictatorship," he said.

"This government should not have to face crises permanently," he added.

Also Saturday, the hard-line Qom Seminary Teachers Association called on all religious schools in Iran to close Monday to protest the Berlin conference, Tehran radio said.