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Iran bans memorials for cleric in wake of violence

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NASSER KARIMI | December 24, 2009 08:17 AM EST | AP

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TEHRAN, Iran — Iran banned memorials for the country's most senior dissident cleric and reiterated a stern warning to the opposition Thursday, after days of services in honor of the spiritual leader turned into street protests against the government.

A commemoration had been planned for Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in the town of Kashan, 135 miles south of Tehran, according to reformist Web sites.

But a large banner was put up in the town proclaiming that the Supreme National Security Council has banned any memorials for Montazeri except in the holy city of Qom and the cleric's hometown of Najafabad. The Web site Parlemannews carried a photo of the banner in Kashan.

The death on Sunday of the 87-year-old Ali Montazeri, a sharp critic of Iran's leaders, has given a new push to opposition protests, which have endured despite a heavy security crackdown since disputed presidential elections in June.

Iran has been in turmoil since the vote, which the opposition alleges Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won by fraud.

On Wednesday, a memorial for Montazeri in the central city of Isfahan turned into anti-government demonstrations, and mourners clashed with riot police. At least 50 were arrested, according to reformist Web sites. Security forces and hard-line militiamen assaulted the crowd gathered at Isfahan's main mosque for Wednesday's memorial, beating men and women and firing tear gas to disperse them. The reports could not be independently confirmed since authorities have banned foreign media from covering protests.

The funeral procession for Montazeri in Qom on Monday also turned into a rally against the government.

The memorials have brought out not only the young, urban activists who filled the ranks of earlier protests, but also older, more religious Iranians who revered Montazeri on grounds of faith as much as politics.

And the government has started moving for the first time against clerics who support the opposition – in Isfahan, pro-government Basij militiamen on Wednesday surrounded the house and office of two prominent religious figures, shouting slogans and breaking windows, opposition Web sites reported.

Montazeri's death comes as Iran marks one of the most important periods on the Shiite religious calendar, the first 10 days of the Islamic month of Moharram, a time of mourning rituals for a revered Shiite saint. The period culminates on Sunday with Ashoura – a day that coincides with the seventh day after Montazeri's death, a traditional day of further commemorations.

There are concerns those seven-day commemorations could fuel greater protests, especially after Iran's police chief, Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, on Wednesday threatened tougher action against protesters.

On Thursday, state TV Web site carried another Ahmadi Moghaddam warning, saying police will take a "harsh approach" against those who commit "violations that lead to disorder." The measures, he was quoted as saying, include detentions of the leaders in violent demonstrations.

Scores have been arrested in the postelection turmoil and mass trials are under way against more than 100 leading moderates, opposition figures and supporters who have disputed Ahmadinejad's re-election.

In the latest trial, Abdollah Ramazanzadeh, a former government spokesman who became an opposition supporter, was sentenced to six years in prison, the semiofficial Fars news agency said Thursday.

Ramazanzadeh, who served until 2004 as spokesman under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, was charged with fomenting unrest in order to topple the ruling system. The special court found him guilty of "acts against national security, propagating against the Islamic establishment and keeping classified documents," according to Fars.

Also Thursday, the Central Bank of Iran urged businesses, traders and the public not to accept bank notes smeared with anti-government graffiti.

Bank director in charge of local currency matters, Ebrahim Darvishi, asked people to "avoid accepting bank notes with extra words." He said banks would not accept such notes as of from Jan. 7.

Bank notes with anti-government slogans have surfaced since June election across Iran. In October, CBI governor Mahmoud Bamani said writing slogans on money would be considered a crime