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Students Protest Media Crackdown

April 25, 2000

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ Hundreds of university students stayed away from classes today to rally behind Iran’s president, whose reforms movement suffered a blow this week when hard-line opponents closed down 13 pro-democracy newspapers and magazines.

The press crackdown, which included the arrests of two leading journalists, was an indication of the immense power that hard-liners in the ruling clergy wield and are willing to use despite the unquestioned popularity of President Mohammad Khatami and his allies.

At the Khajeh Naseer Technical University in Tehran, more than 300 students cut classes and assembled on the lawn outside the main building to hear speakers addressing them through loudspeakers.

``Stand firm Khatami, stand firm Khatami,″ chanted the young men and women, sitting under a pleasant morning sun, many sipping tea and munching cookies.

``The hard-liners are desperate. They want to cling to power even if it means pushing the country toward a crisis,″ said Hamid Khorsand, a student protester. ``But no matter what the hard-liners do, reforms are irrevocable.″

On the green iron fence around the university, hung the last issues of the 13 publications that were closed down Sunday and Monday by order of the hard-line judiciary. The newspapers had turned Khatami, who speaks of democracy and the rule of law, into a national hero.

Only two reformist newspapers _ Mosharekat and Bayan _ escaped the ban. It was not clear why. The ban on a 14th newspaper, Sobh-e-Emrooz, was lifted late Monday for reasons that remained unclear. The paper was in print today.

Sobh-e-Emrooz was managed by Saeed Hajjarian, who last month survived an assassination attempt that many have blamed on hard-liners.

The newspaper closures appear to be a backlash from the hard-liners after their defeat at the hands of reformist candidates in legislative elections in February. The outgoing hard-line dominated parliament passed new laws last week, granting greater powers of prosecution against writers and publishers.

The developments are the latest twist in an intensifying power struggle within the Islamic clergy, which has ruled Iran with an iron hand since taking power in the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the pro-West shah.

Khatami, a moderate cleric, sought to loosen the restrictions after he took office in 1997 but has been opposed by conservative clerics who derive their strength from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate constitutional authority.

The press crackdown was unleashed only days after Khamenei said 10 to 15 reformist newspapers were undermining Islamic and revolutionary principles, insulting constitutional bodies and creating tension and discord in the society.

Judiciary statements quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency said the publications were closed for ``printing material against the lofty Islamic principles and commands.″

The hard-liners control key institutions like the military, the broadcast network and the judiciary, their most potent instrument in the power struggle.

Khatami spoke in public Monday to mark Armed Forces Day, but he made no mention of the closures or the future of his reforms.

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