Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Iran dissident funeral turns into a mass street protest

Tens of thousands of mourners turned the funeral of Iran's leading dissident cleric into an anti-government protest yesterday.

As the crowds chanted “death to the dictator” security forces clamped down in the holy city of Qom where massive crowds streamed in for the funeral rites.

One opposition website reported clashes outside the home of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died on Sunday aged 87.

Montazeri's death pushed Iranian authorities into a difficult spot. They were obliged to pay respects to one of the patriarchs of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the one-time heir apparent to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

But officials also worried that Montazeri's memorials could become new rallying points for opposition demonstrations. The ayatollah broke with Iran's clerical leadership and became a vehement critic, denouncing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and calling the post-election crackdown the work of a dictatorship.

Mourners shouted “death to the dictator” and other slogans in displays of anger against Iran's ruling establishment during the procession in Qom, a city of shrines and clerical seminaries.

Marchers held aloft black-rimmed portraits of Montazeri and green banners and wrist bands in a powerful show of support for the Green Movement of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who attended the funeral along with another prominent protest leader Mahdi Karroubi.

Footage posted on the web showed massive crowds chanting in the streets of Qom and beating their chests in a sign of mourning, as Montazeri's body was carried around the city's main shrine several times then taken to a nearby cemetery for burial alongside his son, who died in the early days of the Islamic Revolution.

Security forces clashed with mourners shouting slogans outside Montazeri's house in Qom, and some protesters threw stones, the opposition website Norouz reported. It said an unspecified number of mourners were arrested. The report could not be independently confirmed, and witnesses did not report major clashes.

Thousands of mourners also marched in the cleric's hometown of Najafabad, near the central city of Isfahan. Authorities were concerned Montazeri's death could set off a string of opposition protests linked to his funeral rites. Traditionally, memorial ceremonies are also held seven days after a death. Moreover, Montazeri's seventh day homage will fall on one of the most important Shiite religious days, marking the martyrdom of a revered 7th century leader — giving even more fuel for a rally.

Montazeri broke with the regime in the 1980s after claiming that the ruling clerics violated the ideals of the revolution by taking absolute power rather than serving as advisers to political leaders. He spent five years under house arrest and had only a minor role in political affairs after being released in 2003.

But the outrage after June's disputed presidential election gave him a new voice that resonated with a younger generation. His most pivotal moments came in the summer when he denounced the “despotic” tactics and “crimes” of the ruling clerics — a bold step that encouraged protesters to break taboos about criticism of Khomeini's successor, Supreme Leader Khamenei.

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