TEHRAN, Iran – A Supreme Court judge reviewing a death sentence imposed on a university professor for insulting Islam said it should be thrown out, according to a news report Sunday.
Ayatollah Mohammad Sajjadi, one of three judges examining the sentence against Hashem Aghajari, said capital punishment was inconsistent with the charges on which the professor was convicted, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Aghajari, a history professor at Tehran's Tarbiat-e-Modarres, or Teachers Training University, was sentenced to death on Nov. 6 after being convicted of insulting Islam and questioning the hard-line clergy's rule.
"After studying the case, I believe the sentence should be revoked. There is no consistency between the charges brought up against the defendant and the sentence," the agency quoted Sajjadi as saying.
The judges are not considering whether to overturn Aghajari's conviction. If they do throw out the death sentence, a lower court could decide a new one or review the entire case.
Aghajari infuriated Iran's hard-liners when he delivered a speech in June questioning why only clerics had the right to interpret Islam, saying each new generation should be able to interpret the faith on its own.
Aghajari's case is being reviewed at a branch of the Supreme Court in the holy city of Qom, 81 miles south of the capital Tehran. No date has been set for the judges to deliver their ruling on the verdict.
If the death sentence is scrapped, an appeals court will consider reducing other sentences imposed against Aghajari. They include 74 lashes, a 10-year ban on teaching and eight years in exile to three remote Iranian cities.
There is a chance the court may consider overturning his conviction.
Aghajari's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, appealed Dec. 2 over his client's objection. Aghajari said his sentence was illegal and he wanted to challenge the judiciary to carry it out.
The death sentence prompted student protests, and Iran's parliament denounced it. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami said the verdict "never should have been issued."
Aghajari's case highlights the power struggle between reformists supporting Khatami's program of social and political freedoms and hard-liners who control unelected institutions, including the police and judiciary.