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"Butcher" of Iranian revolution rallies to reformist president

PARIS, January 14, 2000 (AFP) - The man responsible for hundreds of executions after Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, told a French newspaper Friday that he was returning to politics on the side of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

Khalkhali, notorious as a ruthless hanging judge in the early years of the revolution, said he had been sick with heart problems, but now at the age of 73 he was putting his weight behind Khatami's Association of Combatant Clerics.

"I do not like reformers who just sow trouble. But I am in complete agreement with the president," Khalkhali told Le Figaro in an interview in the holy city of Qom.

"I very much like his idea of a dialogue between civilisations, and also of the development of civil society."

Asked whether his support for reformers did not represent a remarkable turn-around, Khalkhali said: "I have never changed my point of view. I have never been an extremist ... All those I condemned to death were killed according to Islamic law."

Khalkhali said he could not recall how many death sentences he had signed, but it was "definitely less than a thousand."

Khalkhali won himself a fearsome name after the overthrow of the shah in 1979 for his bloodthirsty interpretation of Islamic law, condemning hundreds of opponents of the new government to death, often without trial.

He was famously filmed picking with a stick through the remains of American soldiers who were killed in an abortive mission to rescue hostages held at the US embassy in Teheran.

He told Le Figaro he regretted nothing: "if my victims came back down to earth again, I would execute them all once more, without exception."

Given his past, Khalkhali's support was likely to come as an embarrassment to Khatami, who is preparing for parliamentary elections next month.

The president wants to overturn the grip of hardliners on the country's legislature, which they have used to block his programme of reforms.

Le Figaro's correspondent said Khalkhali has Parkinson's disease and his hands and feet occasionally trembled during the interview.

The correspondent put it to Khalkhali that an international law court was now pursuing those responsible for massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo, at which the ayatollah appeared to succumb to a sudden moment of doubt.

"Do you mean that I could be sent to the international war crimes tribunal?

"No, it is not possible. If I did anything wrong, Ayatollah (Ruhollah) Khomeini (leader of the revolution) would have told me. I only ever did what he asked."