TEHRAN, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- A death sentence for apostasy handed out this week to a top reformist and academic has caused a storm of protest in the Iranian Parliament, according to the country's news agency IRNA.
Two members of Parliament from the western province of Hamadan, where a court on Wednesday sentenced university lecturer Hashem Aghajari to death, resigned Sunday in protest against the verdict.
Hussein Loqmanian, an MP whose imprisonment this year turned into an impasse between the reformist-majority Parliament and the hard-line judiciary, and Mohammad-Reza Ali-Husseini, summed up their reasons for the resignation in a letter which was formally submitted to the Parliament's presiding board.
"There has been no precedent in the country's history in which such a verdict is issued simply because of a speech which contains no blasphemy," the letter said.
The verdict, which also includes an eight-year imprisonment in remote cities and 74 lashes as well as a ban from teaching for 10 years, has been denounced as "too harsh" by reformist circles in Iran, with a student organization calling on the country's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to intervene and abolish the sentence.
Meanwhile, Parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi Sunday strongly criticized the sentence, calling it a "shameful verdict."
"I, as a cleric and the spokesman of religious dignitaries with whom I have contacted, announce my hatred and disgust at this shameful verdict," Karrubi told an open session of the Parliament. He warned the judiciary that the verdict could harm the image of the country and Shi'ism. Karrubi hoped that "such cases would never be repeated in the future."
In a related move, some 181 MPs expressed full support for the speaker, appealing, in a statement, to the judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi to immediately rescind the sentence and secure the release of Aghajari.
A war veteran, Aghajari lost a leg in 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. He is also a member of the pro-reform Organization of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution, which is regarded as the country's second most influential reform group.
Aghajari was summoned to court in August after he called for reform within the Islamic clergy.
In an address in the Iranian western city of Hamadan in June, he had challenged the theory of emulation (or Taqlid) in Shi'ism, underscoring the need for explanations from the religious leaders for the decisions they make on religious matters binding for their followers. In his comments, he had rejected blind faith, likening it to "a monkey's mimicry," a simile which angered the clerics gravely.
Reaction, however, was mixed to Aghajari's remarks. While some hard-line clerics publicly demanded a death penalty, other senior religious figures, mostly among the reformist-leaning clerics, ruled there was nothing blasphemous about his speech.
The head of Parliament's Judicial and Legal Committee, Nasser Qavami, who is a middle-ranking cleric, termed the verdict as "the deadliest blow" to Shiite clergy.
Quoted by IRNA, Qavami said that expressing views and opinions was not a crime. He said he was confident that the supreme court would quash the sentence.