Mullahs try to silence Khatami's youth army

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The Independent Online

But for the turbanned clerics milling around, Tehran University could be anywhere in the world. There are the same knots of students talking and smoking, the same radical political posters, but here student politics is a matter of life and death.

But for the turbanned clerics milling around, Tehran University could be anywhere in the world. There are the same knots of students talking and smoking, the same radical political posters, but here student politics is a matter of life and death.

Three students will learn today if they are to be executed - as the prosecution is demanding - for activities that have outraged Iran's conservative religious leaders. Their crime is blasphemy. They published a not particularly good play in a student newspaper with a circulation of 150 copies.

The play is accused of insulting the Twelfth Imam, who Shia Muslims believe will return to Earth to usher in an era of perfect justice. A fourth student faces another hearing before judgment is passed.

Ali Abas Nemati, the author of the play, wept as he told the court last week that he never meant to insult the Imam. He says his intention was only to satirise those who use religion for their own ends. A professor charged with the students will also learn his fate today. His crime was to allow the play to be read out in his class. The fourth student must wait for a second hearing.

The conservatives who dragged Mr Nemati and his friends to court were never that concerned about the play. Demanding the students' exec-ution is just another ploy to weaken the reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

Only months ago, several Tehran University students were tear-gassed and beaten by gun-toting vigilantes and police. At least one student was killed and 200 were injured. "One of my friends was blinded," one student said, as he waited for his class in the political science faculty. "I had nothing to do with the protests, I just went to see what was going on," said another. "They still beat me, and injured my leg."

Iran's courts blamed four students for the violence - after all, they did seem to be behind peaceful protests over the closure of a newspaper - and sentenced them to death. It took me a while to find one of the brave young army but eventually Kamran, a 22-year-old in a brightly coloured shirt, sidled up, eager to talk.

"I took part in the protests this summer," he said. "They attacked me. They were threatening me with guns." So would he take part in a protest again? "Of course. We have the right to protest. They don't have the right to attack us."

The students are one of the pillars of Mr Khatami's support. The President, currently out of the country on a visit to Paris, may enjoy huge popularity, but it is the students who provide the visible evidence of it. They are the ones prepared to take to the streets in support of his programme of reform.

Putting them through the courts - which the conservatives still control - or shooting them dead humiliates Mr Khatami, since he cannot protect his supporters, and is designed to frighten others away from him. There is some resentment on the campus that Mr Khatami did not do more to help the students who were taken to court in the summer. But the students have not lost their appetite for reform - in fact, many of them accuse Mr Khatami of dragging his feet.

"He does nothing but promise," said one woman wearing a chador. There are murmurings that the students may protest over the trial of Abdollah Nouri, a leading reformer, also due to start today. Kamran said he thought the students would avoid trouble if possible. "But if it's necessary to protest, we will."

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