Iran's Rafsanjani speaks out over students

( AFP ) - Iran's influential ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has defended students' right to freedom of speech, the press reported Tuesday, the day after a demonstration at a Tehran university.

"The question of student associations in universities is a serious issue. Humanity is advancing towards democracy and liberty and we cannot shut down people's thinking with dictatorial regimes," Rafsanjani said in a speech.

"We need to create a climate in the universities where students can express themselves freely and can ask their questions without fear," he told students in the northern town of Sari.

Students at Tehran's Amir Kabir University on Monday held a protest calling for the release of three jailed colleagues, in defiance of apparent efforts by university authorities to prevent the gathering taking place.

They shouted slogans against officials and proclaimed the innocence of the three students, who have been handed sentences of up to three years each on charges of publishing anti-Islamic caricatures in student newspapers.

The new demonstration was held two weeks after students held a noisy protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he gave a speech at Tehran University, likening him to the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Ahmadinejad had been famously heckled during a speech last year to students at Amir Kabir, one of the most prestigious institutions in Iran which has long been a hotbed of political activity.

Universities have always been a sensitive area in the Islamic republic after bloody student riots in Tehran in 1999 sparked when Islamist vigilantes raided university dormitories.

Rafsanjani, who was soundly beaten by Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election, is no ally of the president and has argued for a more pragmatic line on several key issues.

The cleric remains a powerful figure as head of top arbitration body, the Expediency Council, and he was recently elected head of the Assembly of Experts, which chooses and supervises the supreme leader.

There is intense political jockeying in Iran ahead of parliamentary elections on March 14, where moderates will be seeking to unify to strike a major blow against Ahmadinejad. Presidential elections are due in 2009.

In his speech, Rafsanjani also spoke out against censorship. Several moderate newspapers have been banned under Ahmadinejad's presidency over the past two years.

"In a world where information flows at great speed, censorship and restrictions have no effect," he said.

The flagship moderate newspapers Shargh and Ham Mihan have both been closed down under Ahmadinejad. The judiciary also closed reformist publications during the presidency of his predecessor Mohammad Khatami.

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