Human Rights Watch demanded that all charges against Aghajari be dropped immediately.
Aghajari was charged with apostasy in August after a philosophical speech in which he rejected demands to "blindly follow" clerical rule. This speech prompted an outcry from some hard-line clerics in the religious establishment, who claimed that the speech was an attack on the Prophet of Islam and on fundamental Shiite Islamic doctrines. Many Shiite religious authorities contested these charges and Prof. Aghajari himself has repeatedly denied criticizing the Prophet in any way, and apologized for any inadvertent offense his remarks may have caused.
“Prof. Aghajari’s criticisms were of hard-line clerical leaders who demand blind obedience from the people. Instead of protecting Aghajari in conducting a crucial philosophical debate about Iranian and Islamic politics, the judiciary will resort to the death sentence to gag him,” said Joe Stork, Washington director for the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.
“In bringing these charges against Prof. Aghajari, his accusers have affirmed his arguments. By charging that his criticism of them constituted apostasy, they are hiding their political interests behind religious doctrine.”
Despite the disagreement among religious experts, his speech led to Aghajari's arrest on charges of apostasy and subsequent sentencing by Judge Ramazani of the Fourteenth District Court in the western city of Hamadan, the site of Aghajari's speech. The trial was unfair and fell far short of international standards of due process. It was conducted behind closed doors, and the defendant was given only limited access to his lawyer.
In addition to the death sentence, Aghajari received a sentence of 74 lashes of the whip, eight years imprisonment and internal exile, and a 10-year prohibition from teaching. Aghajari has 20 days to lodge an appeal once he officially receives the text of his sentence. His lawyer has said that there will be an appeal, although he has not yet been given the text of the judgment of the reasoning behind it.
Aghajari’s family has expressed concern about his health in prison. He lost his right leg in the Iran-Iraq war, and it is known that he had to undergo surgery on his leg while in prison. The 45-year old Aghajari heads the history department at the Tarbiat Modarress University in Tehran. He is a member of the reformist Organization of Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution and is a close ally of reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.
Prof. Aghajari is evidently another victim of the increasingly intense power struggle within the clerical establishment between reformists and the hard-liners who control most organs of real power, including the military and the judiciary. The sentencing of this prominent reformist intellectual coincided with the parliament passing a bill proposed by President Mohammad Khatami designed to limit the power of the Council of Guardians, one of the power centers used by the hard-liners to maintain their grip on power.
"Professor Aghajari was simply exercising his right to engage in non-violent political and philosophical debate," Stork said. "This is another example of the judiciary and religious law being exploited by one side in a political contest.”
Iran has an obligation to protect free expression under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a party.
Professor Aghajari has committed no offense and should be released immediately and unconditionally, Human Rights Watch said.