- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

TEHRAN Hundreds of militant supporters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gathered in front of parliament yesterday demanding the ouster of reform legislators who opposed the ayatollah's decision to block the easing of restrictive press laws.

Some of the demonstrators, members of Iran's cleric-controlled religious police known as Basijis, wore white shrouds indicating they were prepared to die and be martyred defending the Islamic revolution.

Ayatollah Khamenei on Sunday invoked his extraordinary powers to block consideration of a landmark bill to protect news media. It marked the first time since assuming power 12 years ago that he has directly opposed the will of the Majlis, or parliament, which was captured by reformers for the first time in February elections.

The deputies Sunday had planned to vote on amendments to a press law that has been used to close 23 publications and arrest dozens of journalists this year. The ayatollah's order that the press law not be amended touched off scuffles and shouts between hard-liners and reformists.

In Washington, the State Department said it had "very serious concerns" over the suspension of debate on the bill, the first to be taken up since the reformers took control of parliament. But spokesman Richard Boucher said the loosening of U.S. trade restrictions with Iran, passed in February, would not be reversed.

As if to demonstrate its defiance of the legislature, the hard-line judiciary closed down another reformist newspaper yesterday and detained pro-reform writer Ahmad Zeidabadi.

Mr. Zeidabadi was taken from his house by plainclothes security forces yesterday morning, his cousin said.

"They showed an order issued by the hard-line judge of the press court, Saeed Mortazavi, to detain him," a cousin, Yasser Bayenat, 21, told the Associated Press.

Mr. Bayenat, a university student, said that although Mr. Zeidabadi was a journalist at Hamshahri (Citizen) newspaper, his detention was believed related to articles he published last year in now-banned reformist newspapers.

The pro-reform weekly Cheshmeh Ardebil in northwestern Iran was ordered closed for four months on charges of "disturbing public opinion" and "insulting Islamic sanctities," the daily Abrar reported. The director of Cheshmeh Ardebil, Naser Jafari, was fined $125.

Some merchants said they would join the Basijis in protest today when parliament reopens.

A mullah, or priest, interviewed yesterday at a newsstand in central Tehran, summed up the hard-line view: "No one can make a comment about what the leader does. Islam favors freedom, but we must have a red line. There is no right if a newspaper introduces oppressors as good people."

Another customer offered the view of reformers who swept the parliament in February by an overwhelming majority.

"There is no freedom in Iran," said the man. "The leader has the power in Iran. This is not correct, but it's Iranian peoples' own fault. If they wanted freedom, they would not run after the mullahs."

A woman wearing a black chador, the Islamic covering all women must wear in public, said of Sunday's move by the ayatollah: "We expected it. This is not a surprise.

"It's true that the people who voted for reform are a big power, but those opposed to the demands of the people still hold the institutions of power and are the decision makers.

"We hope the people will succeed one day," said the woman, a microbiology professor at a medical school.

In a quiet neighborhood of Tehran, a man was reading Bahar, or Spring, one of the two remaining reform newspapers still publishing.

"Eighty percent of the people want reform," he said. "Is this democracy? Everyone is nervous over this. All it needs is a spark."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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