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17 Jul 2009 12:41
Iranian police used tear gas and batons to try to disperse tens of thousands of supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had flocked to Tehran University for Friday prayers, a witness said.
Influential cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, leading the weekly ceremony for the first time since the disputed June 12 election, said many Iranians had doubts about the official result in favour of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“We are all members of a family. I hope with this sermon we can pass through this period of hardships that can be called a crisis,” he said in a sermon broadcast on state radio.
Mousavi, a former prime minister, attended the ceremony in his first official public appearance since the vote, which he says was rigged.
The authorities deny any fraud.
Rafsanjani, a key backer of Mousavi’s election campaign, also demanded the immediate release of people detained in post-election unrest and called for press curbs to be relaxed.
“In the current situation it is not necessary for us to have a number of people in prisons ...
Earlier, the crowd inside the hall could be heard on live state radio chanting “Mousavi, Mousavi, we support you,” interrupting Rafsanjani’s sermon.
The chants died away after he quietened the crowd, urging them “not to contaminate the position and the sanctuary of Friday prayers by comments and slogans”.
The pragmatic former president is one of four senior clerics who lead Friday prayers, but he had not done so for two months.
Outside the university grounds, police fired tear gas at Mousavi supporters chanting slogans demanding the release of detainees. It was the biggest anti-government protest since those that erupted in the week after the contested election.
At least 15 people were arrested, the witness said.
The prayer ceremony in downtown Tehran attracted greater numbers than usual. Worshippers can listen to the sermon through loudspeakers outside the university grounds.
A senior cleric earlier called for calm during the prayers, state radio said, in a sign of the clerical establishment’s concern about possible unrest. Iran’s ILNA news agency said cellphones did not work in central Tehran.
Large police presence
There was a large police presence near the university a few hours before the prayers began, a witness said. Scores of policemen were on guard at the central Enqelab square. Many Basij militia members with batons were also seen in the area.
June’s election stirred the most striking display of internal dissent in the oil-producing country since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and exposed deepening divisions in its establishment.
At least 20 people died in post-election violence. Mousavi and the authorities blame each other for the bloodshed. The security forces have managed to largely quell last month’s street demonstrations, but Mousavi has remained defiant.
“I’ve never been to Friday prayers but me and my friends will go to this one,” one female Mousavi supporter said.
Reflecting concern that the event would turn into a show of strength by Ahmadinejad’s pro-reform opponents, Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei said on Thursday:
“The vigilant Iranian nation must be aware that tomorrow’s sermon should not turn into an arena for undesirable scenes.”
Ahmadinejad, who enraged Rafsanjani by accusing him of corruption during the election campaign, criticised him again on Thursday. Some of Rafsanjani’s relatives, including his daughter Faezeh, were arrested briefly for joining pro-Mousavi rallies.
Mousavi says Ahmadinejad’s next government will be illegitimate, even though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has endorsed the victory of his fiery protégé.
The election has further strained ties between Iran and the West, already at odds over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Western powers criticised the protest crackdown and Iran, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, accused them of meddling.—Reuters
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