Top Iran dissident cleric Montazeri dies at 87

Sunday, December 20, 2009

TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran's top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a fierce critic of the hardline leadership who denounced June's disputed election as fraudulent, has died at the age of 87.

The moderate Parlemannews Web site said supporters of Montazeri, an architect of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah, were flocking to the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Qom to attend his funeral on Monday.

The reformist Tagheer Web site said pro-opposition Iranians were gathering in Tehran squares to mourn and said riot police were out in parts of Qom, where Montazeri lived and died.

His death from a heart attack, reported by official media on Sunday, coincides with tension rising once again in the Islamic Republic, six months after the presidential poll plunged the major oil producer into political crisis.

"My grandfather died in his sleep last night. People and friends are coming to express their condolences but there are no special security measures around our house," Naser Montazeri said by phone from Qom, some 125 km (78 miles) south of Tehran.

Monday's burial, to start at 9 a.m. (0530 GMT) at Qom's main shrine, could become a rallying point for the reformist opposition and this may worry the authorities, said London-based Iran analyst Baqer Moin.

"The amount of support shown to him will hearten the opposition who are mourning his loss," Moin said.

Hundreds of Montazeri supporters took to the streets in his home town of Najafabad, both mourning his loss and chanting slogans, video posted on the Internet showed. Shops in the traditionally moderate town were closed and cloaked in black cloth pinned with pictures of the late cleric.

"Montazeri, congratulations on your freedom," the crowd chanted, and "oppressed Montazeri, we will follow your path."

Tagheer, the website of pro-reform cleric Mehdi Karoubi, said Montazeri supporters were gathering in Tehran.

"The social network of the reform movement has called on its supporters to gather in Mohseni square to mourn ... based on reports people have already gathered in some other squares in Tehran," it said.

The reports were not possible to verify independently, as foreign media have been banned from reporting on protests and also from traveling to Qom for Montazeri's funeral.


Montazeri was named in the 1980s to succeed revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's top authority, but fell out with him over the mass execution of prisoners.

One of Iran's most senior clerics, he spent five years under house arrest until 2002 but remained a leading opposition voice until his death, even though he rarely left his home.

"He will be remembered as a man who sacrificed his political position for the sake of his principles," said Moin.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini after his death in 1989, expressed his condolences, ISNA news agency reported.

Alluding to Montazeri's dispute with Khomeini, Khamenei said he asked God to forgive Montazeri over a "difficult and critical test" that he faced toward the end of Khomeini's life. Khamenei made clear his opinion that Montazeri failed the test.

Montazeri, who was a close ally of Khomeini before the revolution and jailed several times by the shah's police, was among the government's harshest critics in a clerical establishment where splits have widened after the election.

In August, the ayatollah said on his Web site that the authorities' handling of street unrest following the election "could lead to the fall of the regime" and he denounced the clerical leadership as a dictatorship.

The pro-reform opposition says the poll was rigged to secure hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.

The authorities have denied the charge and portrayed the huge opposition protests after the election, which were quelled by the elite Revolutionary Guards and Islamic militiamen, as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the clerical leadership.

Tension increased earlier this month when pro-opposition students clashed with the security forces armed with batons and tear gas in the biggest anti-government protest in months.

Khomeini once called Montazeri the "fruit of my life," but the official IRNA news agency said "problem elements" in Montazeri's household and his statements "appreciated by enemies of the Islamic Republic" were to blame for his estrangement with Khomeini two decades ago.



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