TEHRAN, Iran – The spiritual father of Iran's reform movement died Sunday at the age of 87, prompting thousands of his followers to immediately head to the holy city where the dissident cleric is to be buried.
A huge display of mourning for Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri could transform his funeral Monday into another display of power by the opposition, whose activists have for months defied a brutal crackdown, a mass trial and abuses in detention to denounce the country's hard-line clerical rulers. Opposition leaders called for people to turn out for a day of mourning.
Police reinforcements were also called out into the streets of Qom, the religious center south of the capital where Monday's commemorations will take place, an opposition Web site reported, and a prominent government critic who was one of Montazeri's students was arrested on his way to the city, a human rights group said.
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Authorities also banned foreign journalists from traveling there to cover the events.
Montazeri was a key figure in the 1979 Islamic Revolution who later accused his fellow clerical leaders of imposing dictatorship in the name of Islam. His criticism persisted after June's disputed presidential election ignited a new wave of anti-government protest.
In particular, he opened the door to direct condemnation of the ruling clerics, a bold step that energized Iran's young activists. In August, he decried the "despotic treatment" of protesters at the hands of the ruling theocracy. A month later, he accused the regime of committing "crimes ... in name of Islam."
Despite his stature, Montazeri's death is not likely to have a profound impact on the opposition movement, which has moved past allegations of vote rigging to assert that the entire ruling system has been corrupted, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University.
"I think the current opposition movement has gone way beyond and above what Montazeri was standing for," Abdulla said.
But his strong denunciations against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei helped break the taboos against such criticism and pushed the protesters into bolder acts of defiance. In demonstrations earlier this month, students shouted "Death to the dictator!" and burned pictures of Khamenei.
Khamenei issued a statement of condolence Sunday that contained a mixed message.
He praised Montazeri as an outstanding jurist, but added that he hoped God would forgive him for what he called Montazeri's "crucial test," a reference to his falling out two decades ago with the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The split between those two men led to a long government campaign to marginalize Montazeri that included five years of house arrest in which security agents were posted just outside his front door.
Montazeri's grandson, Nasser Montazeri, said he died in his sleep overnight. The Web site of Iranian state television quoted doctors as saying Montazeri had suffered from asthma and arteriosclerosis, a disease that thickens and hardens arteries.
Police increased their presence in the city of Qom, where he is to be buried, according to the pro-reform Web site Rah-e Sabz.
Authorities there faced a difficult choice over whether to try to prevent an outpouring at the funeral that could turn into another opposition street protest. Doing so risks serious backlash from an influential group of clerics based in Qom who are among the current leadership's critics.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said one of Montazeri's followers and a government critic, Ahmad Ghabel, was arrested while driving to Qom with his family to attend the funeral. The New York-based group called on the government not to interfere in the commemorations.
Another prominent critic, filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad, was arrested on a charge of insulting officials, the state news agency IRNA reported Sunday. Nourizad, once a conservative government supporter, wrote a letter of protest to Khamenei in September urging him to apologize to the nation for the postelection crackdown.
The opposition's leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, called Montazeri's death "a great loss," but said he is hopeful other clerics will fill the gap left behind and answer the needs of Iran's younger generation.
Mousavi's claims that fraud deprived him of the presidency in the June 12 election set off weeks of street protests.
He and another defeated pro-reform candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, called for a day of mourning and urged people to join Monday's funeral of "the legend of jurisprudence and spirituality."
Montazeri had once been designated to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini, the late founder of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, as the supreme leader. But the two men clashed a few months before Khomeini died of cancer in 1989.
Montazeri was one of the leaders of the revolution and he helped draft the nation's new constitution, which was based on a concept called velayat-e faqih, or rule by Islamic jurists. That concept enshrined a political role for Islamic clerics in the new system.
But a deep ideological rift soon developed with Khomeini. Montazeri envisioned the Islamic experts as advisers to the government who should not have outright control to rule themselves. He was also among those clerics who believed the power of the supreme leader comes from the people, not from God.
Taking an opposing view, Khomeini and his circle of clerics consolidated absolute power.
The two men also diverged over Khomeini's fatwa, or religious decree, calling for Salman Rushdie to be killed for writing "The Satanic Verses." And Montazeri sharply criticized a wave of executions of political prisoners in the late 1980s.
During that period, Montazeri was gradually stripped of his official duties and became the focus of a high-level campaign to undermine his credentials as a leader and theologian.
In 1997, Montazeri was placed under house arrest in Qom, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Tehran, after saying Khamenei wasn't qualified to rule.
The penalty was lifted in 2003, but Montazeri remained defiant, saying the freedom that was supposed to follow the 1979 revolution never happened.
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