TEHRAN, Iran – Thousands of opposition demonstrators took to the streets in defiance of a government crackdown Friday after a powerful cleric, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, publicly called for the release of people arrested in protests following last month’s disputed election and urged authorities to ease restrictions on the news media.
Addressing a huge crowd in a sermon at traditional Friday prayers, Rafsanjani issued an appeal for national unity but stopped short of endorsing the officially proclaimed landslide re-election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an omission that served to further widen a rift within the country’s Shiite Muslim hierarchy over the results of the June 12 election.
Among those attending the sermon at Tehran University were opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, who ran against Ahmadinejad. Mousavi, 67, a former prime minister who says he was cheated of victory through massive vote-rigging, was making a rare public appearance since security forces cracked down on demonstrations in support of his claims and arrested hundreds of protesters and opposition supporters. Karroubi, 71, a Shiite cleric and former parliamentary speaker, was roughed up by plainclothes security forces on his way to the sermon, his Web site reported.
Shortly after the sermon, thousands of Mousavi supporters demonstrated around Tehran University.
Members of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and the pro-government Basij militia used tear gas and batons to disperse the demonstrators, eyewitnesses reported.
“After tear gas was used outside the university, the wind blew it in and (it affected) everyone, including Basijis and cops,” a witness said. “People started coughing and tears started running out of their eyes. This irritated everyone, and people were saying, ‘This is a shame and a disgrace that prayers are being tear gassed.’ ”