x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Fresh protests in Iran

Protesters take to the streets in Tehran after the cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani calls for detainees held by police since the country's disputed presidential election to be freed.

Defiant opposition supporters today held fresh protests in Tehran, witnesses said, after the powerful cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani called for detainees held by police since the country's disputed presidential election to be freed. Thousands of supporters of the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi demonstrated at various locations around Tehran University where the influential Rafsanjani led Friday prayers attended by the former premier, witnesses said.

The demonstrations were held in defiance of a ban slapped on such gatherings by the Iranian authorities in the wake of deadly unrest sparked by the disputed June 12 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The witnesses said riot police and vigilantes were deployed on streets near the university to prevent the demonstrations, but protesters managed to evade them to stage brief gatherings. They said several people had been arrested, including a leading lawyer and women's rights campaigner, Shadi Sadr, and that police had fired paintball bullets to disperse some crowds.

Thousands of people, many wearing green bands indicating support for Mr Mousavi, converged on the area surrounding Tehran University, among them scores of families with children, according to witnesses. Friday's weekly prayers offered a new opportunity for opposition supporters to stage demonstrations. They last took the streets in numbers on July 9 to stage a march to commemorate the anniversary of bloody student unrest in 1999.

Mr Mousavi, who today made his first public appearance since last month's protests in Tehran, has charged that the June vote was rigged and that he in fact had won the contest. He has dismissed the next government as "illegitimate". Mr Rafsanjani, who was Iran's president between 1989 and 1997, said events since the election had broken the trust of Iranians that now needed to be restored as the country was in crisis.

He added: "It is not necessary that in this situation people be jailed. Let them join their families. We should not allow enemies to rebuke and ridicule us because of detentions. We should tolerate each other." He said he had formulated a possible solution to the current political crisis, which he had discussed with members of two key institutions which he heads, the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts.

"A large group of ... people of the country say they have doubt" about the result of the election, the cleric said. "We should work to address these doubts." Mr Rafsanjani also criticised the electoral watchdog, the Guardian Council, which has upheld Ahmadinejad's victory, saying it did not "use well" the extra time given to it by Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to resolve the vote dispute.

In his sermon, Mr Rafsanjani, who himself lost out to Mr Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race, did not comment directly on the hardline leader. *AFP