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Iran upholds death sentence of militiaman killer

TEHRAN, Iran, December 23, 1999 (Reuters) - Iran's Supreme Court has upheld a sentence of death by public hanging in the case of an 18-year-old youth, convicted of killing an Islamic militiaman in a row over smoking, newspapers reported on Thursday.

They said the court confirmed the death sentence handed down by a lower court last week to Morteza Amini Moqaddam. He was found guilty of the stabbing of Hadi Mohebbi, a member of the Basij militia, in a shop in southeastern Tehran on December 12.

Moqaddam is expected to go to the gallows in front of the shop.

The attack happened after the militiaman tried to stop Moqaddam's young accomplice, Hamed Nazemi from smoking in public. Smoking is banned along with eating and drinking during the Moslem fasting month of Ramadan.

The Supreme Court also upheld a sentence of 15 years in jail and 74 lashes imposed on Nazemi.

The Basij militia, said to have up to five million members, was created after the 1979 Islamic revolution to defend the Islamic system. Often operating out of mosques, it has fought signs of ``decadent'' Western culture and sought to protect a strict interpretation of Islamic values.

The case has attracted plenty of public interest in Iran, where views of the militia are mixed.

Basij sympathisers see the group's members as selfless individuals who sacrificed their lives to defend the country during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

But the Basij also has a reputation for intrusive behaviour and being immune to the rule of law.