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Iranian students sentenced over play
Iran press court postpones verdict in blasphemous play trial
Young Iran dramatist lands in big political drama
Four face death - and we all stand idly by
English translation of the play

Iranian students sentenced over play

TEHRAN, Iran, November 3, 1999 (BBC)  -- Two students in Iran have been sentenced to three years in jail for their role in producing a play accused of insulting Islam. A third student was given a six month sentence and a university professor was acquitted.

The Iranian news agency IRNA has reported that the sentences have been suspended.

Prosecutors said the play made fun of one of Islam's most revered figures - the Twelfth, or Missing, Imam - and encouraged immoral behaviour.

Under Iranian law, insulting one of the holy imams can be punishable by death, but lesser slights usually carry modest prison sentences.

The author of the play, Ali Abbas Nemait, told the court when the trial started that his intentions had been misinterpreted.

The play was published in the 'Mowj' student magazine, and performed in class. The teacher was accused of failing to suppress it.

The judge, who consulted with supreme court jurists, decided to pass relatively light sentences in part because the men had apologised, Iranian state radio reported.

Several hardline clergymen and newspapers had even demanded the death sentence against the four.

The case was seen as another test of the relative political strengths of the traditionalists and reformers in Iranian society, and has generated wide public interest.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intervened earlier this month, saying the case should not be blown out of  proportion.

The BBC's Middle East correspondent, Jim Muir, said he acted to prevent the affair from becoming a factional cause celebre.

Iran press court postpones verdict in blasphemous play trial

TEHRAN, Iran, October 30, 1999 (AFP) - Iran's press court on Saturday postponed delivery of its verdict on three students and an academic charged with publishing an allegedly blasphemous play in a university magazine.

Judicial sources told AFP that press court judge Said Mortazavi would not be back in chambers until Tuesday to deliver a verdict on the four, accused of mocking Shiite Muslims who believe a so-called "hidden" imam or Mahdi will return to usher in an age of justice.

Mortazavi was expected to issue the verdict last week, but the Qods paper said Thursday he would "summon the accused and announce the verdict to them personally" on Saturday.

Students Mohammad-Reza Namnabati, Abbas Nemati and Ali-Reza Aqaii appeared before the court two weeks ago to answer the charges levelled against them.

Mortazavi endorsed the accusations, alleging that they had "offended the Imam Mahdi" and "the values of the Islamic Revolution as well as its martyrs."

Mehdi Sajadehchi, a university professor, is charged with encouraging the students over the play, which was published in a student magazine at Tehran Polytechnic university.

All four denied intent and expressed regret over the incident.

Another student was to appear in court on the same charges this week, though the exact date of the hearing has not been announced.

Earlier this month the intelligence ministry announced that it was holding four suspects in connection with the play's publication.

"After a thorough cross-examination, the accused confessed to being guilty of the profane acts," the ministry said.

The play sparked widespread outrage among the country's leading conservatives. Some called for the death sentence and one senior police chief volunteered to perform the execution himself.

But the Entekhab paper on Thursday reported that a representative of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had expressed hope that the court would consider "strong mitigation" in its verdict.

In a sermon earlier this month, Khamenei warned against "any arbitrary, individual or overly emotional reaction" to the play.

Young Iran dramatist lands in big political drama

by Mehrdad Balali

TEHRAN, Iran, October 31, 1999 (Reuters) - An Iranian student seeking to dramatise his deep religious idealism in a small campus play has found himself at the centre of a wider political drama and facing an uncertain future.

An Iranian court is due to issue verdict on Tuesday after a trial earlier this month of the author, Abbas Nemati, and three others held for allegedly insulting a Shi'ite Moslem saint in a satirical sketch published in an obscure university journal.

The play, which evokes Shi'ite Islam's 12th Imam, an untouchable figure whose return to earth is believed will usher in a period of perfect justice, sparked an uproar among religious hardliners, who called it blasphemous.

But Nemati, a sophomore law student, and his co-defendants argue they had no intention to insult the Imam or the faith.

One of Nemati's close relatives, who requested anonymity, said the play was only a ``crude and thoughtless'' exercise by an aspiring screenwriter.

``He has no interest in politics. He likes to write movie scripts. The walls of his room are lined with scripts. He has more books  on screenwriting than about law,'' he told Reuters.

The relative said the play was Nemati's first chance to have a work published.

Hardliners see Western influence

Conservatives have called the play a by-product of Western liberal influences in Iranian campuses, a trend they say is helped by the more tolerant cultural policies of reformist President  Mohammad Khatami.

The president himself condemned the play but said the offence was compounded by the hardliners' efforts to turn it to political advantage and ensure their own survival.

Nemati's relative said the author is a '`strictly devout'' Moslem, and a product of one of the solidly-religious schools set up after the 1979 revolution to educate the youth in the mold of Shi'ite Islam and untainted by western influences.

``He is radical in a religious sense. He follows Islamic teachings to the letter. He is even more pious than the rest of his family,''  he said.

Nemati's mother, fully wrapped in the black chador, a trademark of more pious women in Iran, sat quietly inside the judicial complex in Tehran, awaiting a word on the sentencing.

``I don't think he will easily get off the hook. The judge is very unpredictable,'' said the relative, referring to judge Saeed Mortezavi, who presided over the trial.

 ``We are all suffering from this ordeal. It has really turned our lives around.''

Mortezavi accused the defendants during the trial of insulting the 12th Imam as part of a wider effort to undermine the nation's religious and revolutionary faith.

No death sentence expected

Under Article 513 of the criminal code, insulting the Imam carries a possible death sentence, while lesser slights earn up to five years in jail.

Nemati's relative said the play should be evaluated from an artistic point of view.

``He didn't mean to offend anyone. When you portray a bad guy in a story, you can't expect him to speak like a good person. So  that does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the author,'' he said, referring to the main character, Abbas, named after the writer.

Nemati, obviously shaken by the affair, told the court during his trial that he wrote the play to ``serve the interests of religion.''

The writer surrendered himself to the authorities after the other suspects were arrested in a campus swoop.

Reflecting the sensitivity of the case and general sympathy for the defendants, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for leniency.