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Iranian reformist editor jailed for Islam challenge

TEHRAN, Iran, April 10, 2000 (Reuters) - An Iranian editor who challenged the Islamic law of retribution was jailed on Monday after losing an appeal against a 30-month sentence imposed for criticising capital punishment.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a leading reformist, was jailed for offending religious values after the appeal court upheld the sentence imposed by a hardline press court, his colleagues at Asr-e Azadegan newspaper told Reuters.

The charges stem from an article criticising capital punishment, published in his previous newspaper Neshat, which was closed by the press court last September and are the latest in a series of blows against the reformist movement in Iran.

The special press court charged the editor with questioning the Islamic law of retribution, summed up in the injunction "an eye for an eye."

Culture Minister Ataollah Mohajerani, overseeing Iran's blossoming press, expressed concern over Shamsolvaezin's arrest but said that he could not do anything to help him.

"I am saddened by the fact that a prominent journalist is being sent to prison...(but) I can not do anything for him," Mohajerani told a news conference.

"The realisation and institutionalisation of freedom is a lengthy process," Mohajerani said.

Under existing Iranian law, a newspaper's publisher - not the individual writer or editor - is legally responsible for the content of all published materials.

Over the past two years, Shamsolvaezin had led the reformist and popular Jameah, Tous and Neshat dailies, all banned by the conservative-led judiciary, before opening Asr-e Azadegan.

PROTECT PRESS FREEDOM

In a recent open letter to moderate President Mohammad Khatami, Shamsolvaezin appealed for protection from hardliners' pressure.

"Either tell us that our press activities are illegal... or tell us clearly from which government body we are to get the minimum of political and professional security to continue our work," he said in the letter, written jointly with fellow editor Hamid-Reza Jalaeipour.

A similar plea was made to Iran's new judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi.

The move to jail him on the grounds of insulting Islamic values is the latest in a series of blows to the reform movement struggling against Iran's conservative establishment.

Iran's courts have closed several pro-reform publications and banned some of their publishers from press activities.

But their journalists have often launched new publications, using liberal licensing rules introduced by Khatami, who was elected on a reform platform in 1997.