TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's Supreme Court has reviewed the death sentence of a professor accused of questioning the rule of hard-line clerics and likely will set it aside, the professor's lawyer said Saturday.
But clerics warned they would execute Hashem Aghajari themselves if his death sentence is overturned.
Aghajari, a history professor at Tehran's Teachers Training University, was convicted of insulting Islam and questioning clerical rule during a June speech. He asked why only clerics were authorized to interpret Islam and argued that each new generation should be able to interpret the faith.
His sentencing in November provoked the biggest student protests in Iran in three years, and highlighted the power struggle between the country's liberals and hard-liners.
The Supreme Court in Qom, a holy city 80 miles southwest of the capital Tehran, has been reviewing Aghajari's case since Nikbakht appealed in December. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged a review after widespread protests.
"The Supreme Court branch in Qom has reviewed the death sentence. But I expect an official announcement from the Supreme Court on Monday to the effect that the death verdict has been revoked," Aghajari's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, told The Associated Press.
Last month, Ayatollah Mohammad Sajjadi, one of the three review judges, said capital punishment was inconsistent with the charges against the professor.
A judicial expert said the review meant it was highly unlikely Aghajari would be executed.
"Reconsidering the verdict means the death sentence has almost certainly been revoked," said Naser Qavami, a legislator and head of the Judicial Committee in parliament.
"If politics don't interfere in the case, the verdict can never be upheld by the Supreme Court."
Aghajari's case symbolizes the power struggle between reformists supporting President Mohammad Khatami's program of social and political freedoms and hard-liners who control unelected institutions, including the police and judiciary.
Meanwhile, a group of hard-line clerics from Qom Seminary said in a statement published last week they are prepared to execute Aghajari if the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence because of "political pressures."
Also Saturday, a leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the biggest reformist party, was imprisoned for six months for supporting Aghajari, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. Hossein Mojahed, a party chief in western Iran, was jailed after the Supreme Court upheld his sentence, IRNA said.