Cleric's Death, Torture Case Jolt Iran
Iran's opposition on Sunday seized upon the death of one of the Islamic republic's founding fathers -- a revered ayatollah who was also a fierce critic of the nation's leadership -- to take to the streets in mourning.
Fearing that mourners could quickly turn into antigovernment protesters, Iranian authorities tightened security across the country. In Tehran, crowds held up pictures of the dead cleric and chanted, "This is the month of blood, the regime is coming down," according to eyewitnesses and videos posted on YouTube.
But the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who passed away in his sleep, was only one of two surprises to shake Iran over the weekend.
Hours earlier, on Saturday, military prosecutors alleged that prison guards tortured to death at least three student protesters in July, contradicting months of denials by top leaders. The reversal is one of the biggest blows to Tehran's credibility since government protests first erupted six months ago. Either development, by itself, would provide a rallying point for the opposition, which claims last summer's presidential election was a fraud and is demanding a political overhaul. Together, they represent the widening array of challenges facing the Iranian regime
The murder allegations center on Tehran's notorious Kahrizak prison, where three protesters died in July. A young doctor who claimed to have evidence of torture at the prison, Ramin Pourandarjani, later himself died under mysterious circumstances. In recent weeks Dr. Pourandarjani, who was the subject of a page-one article in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, has emerged as a martyr figure for the opposition.
Complicating matters, the weekend's events coincide with the 10-day Muharram religious holiday, during which Shiite Muslims traditionally hold emotionally charged street processions to honor a revered Shiite saint.
The opposition already had vowed to mark this year's ceremonies with massive daily protests against the government.
Iran's leadership maintains a firm grip on power and quickly moved to assert its control, using tools that have proved effective in the past to tamp down unrest. Prominent opposition figures and activists reported receiving threatening phone calls from security agents on Sunday, warning them against attending Monday's funeral, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Five prominent opposition figures were reportedly arrested on the road to the holy city of Qom, where the ayatollah's funeral service was planned.
On Sunday, as news spread of the death of Ayatollah Montazeri, 87 years old, spontaneous protests erupted in several Iranian cities and at university campuses,
according to video circulating on the Internet Sunday afternoon. In one clip from Najafabad, Mr. Montazeri's home town, crowds chanted, "Our green Montazeri, congratulations on your freedom." Green is the adopted color of the Iranian opposition movement.
At several Tehran universities, professors canceled classes. Students staged sit-ins and marches, reciting verses from the Quran and chanting, "It's a day of mourning in Iran, the Green people of Iran are in mourning." Iran's main student-activist group called on students across the nation to take to the streets Monday in a sign of respect for Ayatollah Montazeri.
The family of Ayatollah Montazeri said it would hold the funeral Monday in Qom. By midday Sunday, opposition Web sites were calling on supporters to join them for Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral.
His death provides an opportunity for Iran's dissident clergy members, who have mostly remained on the sidelines, to publicly show support for the opposition. This is significant because, in Iran, political movements have little chance to succeed without backing from the clergy.
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