Iranian Cleric Calls for Harsh Punishment for Riot Leaders

By: Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin, Washington Post
By: Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin, Washington Post

TEHRAN, June 26 -- An influential Iranian cleric told worshipers Friday that those stirring unrest in connection with the recent election should be punished "ruthlessly" for waging war against God, a crime that under Shiite Islamic law is punishable by death.

In Washington, President Obama Friday condemned recent violence against protesters as "outrageous" and dismissed a demand by Iran's president that he apologize for similar previous comments. Obama suggested that it was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who should be apologizing to Iranian victims and their families for the violent actions of security forces.

In a sermon at Tehran University that was broadcast live to the nation, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami amplified the ominous tone that the state has adopted this week toward the tens of thousands of demonstrators who have massed in the streets to question the results of the June 12 presidential balloting. The government has deemed the gatherings illegal.

"I want the judiciary to . . . punish leading rioters firmly and without showing any mercy to teach everyone a lesson," said Khatami, an influential cleric close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "Based on Islamic law, whoever confronts the Islamic state . . . should be convicted as mohareb. . . . They should be punished ruthlessly and savagely."

Iran's judiciary said Tuesday that a special court would be set up to make an example out of "rioters" arrested during the demonstrations. According to Iranian state media, more than 450 have been arrested. International human rights groups say the number is higher and includes both demonstrators and well-known dissidents who have called for years for more political freedom in Iran.

A spokesman for the Guardian Council, Iran's electoral watchdog, reiterated Friday that the council has found no fraud or significant problems with vote-rigging in the disputed election, in which Ahmadinejad is said to have beaten challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.

"After 10 days of examination, we did not see any major irregularities," Abbas Ali Kadkhodai told the official IRNA news agency.

But the council later announced the formation of a "special committee" to review the election process and invited Mousavi and another opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, to send representatives to participate in it. The council gave the two candidates 24 hours to name their representatives. It said 10 percent of the ballot boxes would be recounted in the presence of the committee, which would then issue a report about the election.

There was no immediate response from Mousavi or Karroubi. Mousavi has previously criticized the Guardian Council as biased toward Ahmadinejad.

The council on Tuesday announced a five-day extension of an inquiry into the election, a probe that was to have been completed Wednesday. But Kadkhodai said Friday that even though the formal inquiry now will not conclude until early next week, the vote will not be overturned, because no fraud has been found.

In his Friday sermon, Khatami also harshly denounced Western news media, leveling accusations of false reporting. He singled out Britain for special criticism.

The cleric, a member of the Assembly of Experts and a supporter of Ahmadinejad, claimed that protesters were responsible for the slaying of a young woman, Neda Agha Soltan, who has become an opposition icon since she was shot June 20 on a Tehran street and cellphone cameras captured her dying moments. Khatami asserted that "evidence shows that [protesters] have done it themselves and have raised propaganda against the system." Witnesses said Soltan was shot by a member of the pro-government Basij militia.


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