Hashem Aghajari, defiant dissident who faced the hangman
If there is one man who can testify to the dangers of challenging Iran's clerical rulers, it is Hashem Aghajari -- the dissident who dared to say Muslims were not "monkeys" and nearly paid the ultimate price. READ MORE
"I had been in prison for four months when the intelligence men came to take me to the judge. Then he read the verdict," Aghajari recounted in a rare interview.
His crime was a speech to students in the western town of Hamedan in 2002. He had called for a popular reformation of Shiite Islam and Muslims, he told the gathering, do not need to "blindly follow" religious leaders like monkeys.
For regime hardliners it was blasphemous, a full-frontal attack on one of the central pillars of the Iranian regime -- the position of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a supreme leader who cannot be questioned.
Eager to keep Iran's "red lines" intact, the court delivered the sentence in November 2002: Death by hanging.
The assistant judge even took pleasure in telling Aghajari that "I'll put the rope around your neck myself". One cleric even labelled him "worse than Salman Rushdie", the British author sentenced to death by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"When my mother came to see the provincial head of the judiciary," Aghajari said, "she was told that she would be better off forgetting she ever had a son."
But Aghajari, a quiet, balding intellectual who lost a leg fighting for the survival of his country during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq' war, refused to beg for mercy.
"I fought the shah. I fought Iraq. I was 42 years old, and I had lived 20 years more than I should have. I was ready to die," he told AFP.
Signalling that his faith was in God, and not in man, "I told those who were interrogating me that if I must die, it was not them, nor anyone else no matter how powerful they are, who will decide."
His challenge was not merely targeted at the hardliners running the small provincial court, but the regime as a whole -- who he still believes conspired to see him strung up as an example to anyone thinking of openly challenging the clergy's hold over the quarter-of-a-century-old regime.
"Everything was carefully orchestrated in Hamedan, Qom (Iran's clerical capital) and Tehran," he said, before reeling off a list of names of top Iranian ayatollahs.
The plot to see him die went right to the top of the regime, he signalled.
"When I asked the (then reformist) president of the parliament to intervene with the head of the judiciary so that I could be transferred to Tehran, he replied that he could do nothing. They were too powerful," he said.
But what Aghajari could also count on was widespread revulsion that, under a reformist government fronted by President Mohammad Khatami' and his brand of "Islamic democracy", a man can still face execution for speaking out.
"I knew that the world had changed and would not be indifferent," he said, revealing his thoughts during the long days, weeks and months of solitary confinement in a grotty cell.
The first out were the students of Tehran University, determined to show they would stop the state from killing their popular history professor.
Clashes with members of hardline vigilantes, called out by the clerics in times of need, threatened to spiral into all-out rioting.
Eventually, the supreme leader himself was forced to intervene by ordering a new trial, and Aghajari's jailors had to make do with making his spared life as dire as possible.
"In prison I was not physically tortured. They stopped that after Khatami took office in 1997. But I spent 10 months in solitary," Aghajari recounted.
"They sometimes let me out into an empty prison courtyard that was so freezing cold that I was banging on the door to get back inside, and then they locked me out. The hygiene was deplorable. I had gangrene where my leg was amputated."
Last year the hardline judiciary held yet another re-trial, and reduced the charges to "insulting religious sanctities", "propagating against the regime" and "spreading false information to disturb the public mind".
With Aghajari also cited as a possible Nobel Peace Prize winner, the authorities appeared to decide it was better off dropping the matter altogether: the death penalty was commuted to five years in jail, and Aghajari was freed on bail on a summer's evening in July 2004.
He is again in front of his students, teaching on one of his other favorite topics -- the history of Iran's 16th to 18th century Safavid era.
Occasionally puffing on his pipe, Aghajari mulled the June 17 presidential election.
"People have understood that reforms are not possible within the current system," he said. "I'm not sure if I'll be voting."