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Updated: December 31, 2009 01:11 IST

Iran hard-liners back government in mass rallies

AP
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Pro-government Iranian demonstrators gather in a rally at the Enqelab (Revolution) Sq. in Tehran on Wednesday. Photo: AP.
Pro-government Iranian demonstrators gather in a rally at the Enqelab (Revolution) Sq. in Tehran on Wednesday. Photo: AP.

Tens of thousands of hard—line government supporters turned out for state—sponsored rallies on Wednesday, some of them calling for the execution of opposition leaders as Iran’s police chief threatened to show “no mercy” in crushing any new protests by the pro—reform movement.

Pro—government rallies were staged in Shiraz, Arak, Qom and Tehran, among other cities. Demonstrators at a rally in Tehran chanted “Death to Mousavi,” a reference to opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Some shouted “Rioter hypocrites must be executed” and held up a banner that read: “We sacrifice our blood for supreme leader.”

The government gave all civil servants and employees a day off to attend the rallies and organized buses to transport groups of schoolchildren and supporters from outlying rural areas to the protests.

Hardline cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda, called opponents of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supporters of Satan.

“Enemies of the leader, according to the Quran, belong to the party of Satan,” Alamolhoda told demonstrators in Tehran in comments broadcast on state TV. “Our war in the world is war against the opponents of the rule of the supreme leader.”

Separately, police chief Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam warned protesters to stay off the streets or face harsh consequences. At least eight people were killed in street violence Sunday, the country’s worst unrest since the aftermath of the disputed presidential election on June 12.

“In dealing with previous protests, police showed leniency. But given that these opponents are seeking to topple (the ruling system), there will be no mercy,” Gen. Moghaddam said, according to the official news agency IRNA. “We will take severe action. The era of tolerance is over. Anyone attending such rallies will be crushed.”

One of those killed on Sunday was the nephew of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Iran’s deputy police chief said Ali Mousavi, was assassinated by unidentified assailants and not killed by security forces.

Ali Mousavi was buried on Wednesday in a hastily organized ceremony. Authorities had taken his body from the hospital earlier in the week in what was seen as an attempt to prevent the funeral from turning into another pro—opposition protest.

The opposition says Ali Mousavi was shot and killed by security forces. But Iran’s deputy police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, was quoted by IRNA as saying that the way he was killed suggests he was assassinated while walking. The New York Times has quoted a family friend as saying he was run over by a vehicle outside his home in an assassination.

The opposition leader and other family members attended the funeral.

Meanwhile, a graphic video broadcast on the Internet purportedly from Sunday’s demonstration showed two white police pickup trucks, with fences on the front bumpers, plowing into a group of protesters.

One truck is seen reversing from where a body lies face down on the asphalt. The second truck then speeds up and runs over the body, which is lying in a pool of blood, as people nearby cry out. The authenticity of the video couldn’t be independently verified.

When asked about the video and whether police trucks intentionally ran over people, Mr. Moghaddam became enraged. “Don’t ask lies,” he said. “There are no pictures showing police cars running over people.”

The police chief said more than 500 protesters who took part in Sunday’s demonstrations have been arrested but the number may be higher since hardline Basij militiamen and intelligence agents may have apprehended more people on their own.

There are increasing fears Mousavi could also be arrested, following detention of a number of prominent activists and the sister of Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi.

The government has also limited the movement of a leading opposition figure, Mahdi Karroubi, by refusing to protect him when he leaves his home.

Karroubi and Mousavi were the two defeated reformist candidates in the disputed June election, which set off the worst unrest in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Authorities are also tightly restricting media coverage of street rallies, Internet access in the country is sporadic, as are cell phone and text messaging services.

Sunday’s deadly protests coincided with Ashoura, the most solemn day of the year for Shiite Muslims. The observance commemorates the 7th—century death in battle of one of Shiite Islam’s most beloved saints, and it conveys a message of sacrifice in the face of repression.

Hard—liners are especially furious that some of the protesters insulted Supreme Leader, casting aside a taboo on personal criticism of the leader. The government has said the protesters are a tiny minority, and accused the U.S. and Britain of organizing the opposition.

The hard—line criticism has become increasingly vocal, with some activists threatening to take the law into their own hands.

The arrests, along with the tough criticism of the U.S. and Britain, added to rising tensions with the West, which is threatening to impose tough new sanctions over Iran’s suspect nuclear programme and has criticized the violent crackdown on anti—government protesters.

On Wednesday the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, urged the government to keep security forces from using excessive force. She said she was “shocked by the upsurge in deaths, injuries and arrests” and stressed the people have the right to peacefully protest without being beaten and thrown into jail.

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