Iran death sentence concerns some University students

Elizabeth Dunbar

Ali Nasiri-Amini stood among thousands of students two years ago in Iran, denouncing the government shutdown of a newspaper and alleged police killing of a student.

The recent death sentence handed to an Iranian professor for slandering Islam has Iranian students at the University concerned about freedom of speech rights in their home country.

“What we were saying then was that if they want to kill one of us, they have to kill all of us,” said Nasiri-Amini, an electrical engineering graduate student.

“We have freedom of speech in the constitution, but the problem is that the judiciary doesn’t implement it,” he said.

Hashem Aghajari, an Iranian history professor, was sentenced to death Nov. 7 for apostasy, or insulting Islam. Thousands of students at several universities in Iran have demanded the charges be lifted and called for the government to recognize freedom of speech and religion.

Sharareh Noorbaloochi, a computer engineering junior from Iran, said students think civil rights will improve Iran’s government.

“The students are pushing for a more educated political system,” Noorbaloochi said. “They believe that Iran can have a better, more logical way of looking at politics.”

Nasiri-Amini said Aghajari and the students are a part of a reformist movement which advocates broader freedoms for Iranian citizens. Reformists have clashed with conservatives over the role of Islam in the country’s political system.

“Professor Aghajari simply said that every young person has to rethink their religious beliefs and not just follow religious leaders blindly,” Noorbaloochi said.

“I would have done the same thing if I were them,” said Neda Shahghasemi, a biomedical engineering sophomore from Iran. “So far, the politicians haven’t answered their needs. I agree with what they’re asking.”

Under Iran’s political system, the people elect members of parliament and the president. The supreme religious leader, however, controls the judiciary and armed forces and is not directly elected by the people.

This week, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered a review of the professor’s case, suggesting the sentence might be reduced.

“I think students have realized how important their presence is in the political arena,” Noorbaloochi said. “They have caught the attention of the supreme leader, and it’s a great success for students to present themselves this way.”

The reformist president and parliament disagreed with the sentence, Nasiri-Amini added, but it was not enough for the supreme leader to act.

“When the president, parliament and the people say they don’t agree with something, then the supreme leader does something about it,” Nasiri-Amini said.

The judiciary will review the case, but unless Aghajari appeals or the judiciary reverses the sentence by Dec. 2, the professor will be executed.

Though the judiciary has the ultimate authority and Aghajari – a veteran – has refused to appeal, Nasiri-Amini and Noorbaloochi said they think the judge will reduce the sentence.

“We are hoping for the best – that they will lift the charges,” Noorbaloochi said. “But that’s being too idealistic.”

“It’s not possible for them to implement the death sentence,” Nasiri-Amini said, adding that he thinks the president and parliament would resign in protest if it were carried out.

“The whole thing is a power fight over the constitution,” he said, explaining that the two sides are demanding more than what they expect to achieve in the end.

Though conservatives have held counter-protests this week, Shahghasemi and Nasiri-Amini said the students represent a larger part of society.

“More than half of the people in Iran are under 20, which makes the students a very important group,” Shahghasemi said.

Nasiri-Amini said the students are representing more than their own interests.

“They are representing their families as well,” he said. “The way people from small villages send their messages to the government is through the students.”

As a nation in the developing world, Shahghasemi said, students are exposed to other ideas and are motivated to change Iran.

“The students see modern life and ideas in other countries,” she said. “Because of this, I think students are more affected by being in a (developing) country than others in society. Politics affects their everyday lives.”

Noorbaloochi said she thinks the student movement is a key part of sustaining and further integrating democracy in Iran.

“It’s important for students to protest because the public looks at them as the educated class of society,” she said. “When society sees the students reacting strongly against something, it makes them take action.”

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]