Iran: Release Jailed Dissident
Freedom House Calls for Reformer's Immediate Release
July 21, 2004
by Center for Religious Freedom
The government of Iran should immediately release from prison a former academic that has advocated religious and political reform in Iran, Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom said today.
Earlier this week, an Iranian court sentenced, Hashem Aghajari, a former history professor, to five years in prison—with two years suspended and two years counted as time served—for criticizing Iran’s Islamist revolutionary government. Mr. Aghajari, who lost a leg fighting for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, was also denied the right to social services for an additional five years.
The Center for Religious Freedom protested the verdict and renewed its long-standing call for Aghajari’s immediate release on religious freedom grounds.
Mr. Aghajari was originally arrested for a speech he gave in August 2002, in which he reportedly called for religious renewal and stated that “Muslims should not follow Islamic clerics like monkeys.” At his subsequent trial, he announced that he was being punished for “the sin of thinking,” asserting that “the Islam I believe in is an Islam which defends human rights, freedom, and democracy.” Aghajari was accused of “insulting the Prophet Muhammad” and was sentenced to death. In the face of popular student protests, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suspended Aghajari’s death sentence.
“The commuting of Mr. Aghajari’s death sentence was no doubt due to the gathering threat of popular protest inside Iran and international censure,” said Center for Religious Freedom director Nina Shea.
During Aghajari’s trial this month his supporters were blocked from entering the courtroom by police, as well as by hard-liners demanding the death penalty. Aghajari has twice had his death sentence commuted.
In a three-hour cross-examination during this second re-trial, Aghajari insisted that he had not attacked the sacredness of Islam, but rather argued that religious authorities are ordinary human beings, not sacred icons. He also argued that his criticisms of the Council of Guardians were not aimed at the Iranian government per se. According to Radio Farda, a U.S.-funded Farsi-language broadcaster, Aghajari told the court that he had actually defended Islam and the Islamic government in his speech two years ago, “but I said a religious government is neither religious nor legitimate if it arrests clerics and cracks down on intellectuals in the name of preserving religion.”
“Iran needs to be tolerant of free speech, and the judiciary must recognize the right of citizens to peacefully express their personal religious beliefs, however much these may diverge from official orthodoxy,” said Ms. Shea. “Professor Aghajari not only merits exemption from the death penalty for his honestly expressed opinions, but he deserves immediate and unconditional release.”