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Bid to halt Iran professor's death

Iran protests
Students protest a death sentence against scholar Hashem Aghajari.

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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- The lawyer for an Iranian professor sentenced to death for insulting Islam and questioning clerical rule has filed an 11th hour appeal.

Aghajari, a university professor, was condemned to hang last month for his outspoken remarks, which included his comments that believers in Islam should not blindly follow senior clerics "like monkeys."

Aghajari's conviction and sentence have sparked the largest student protests in Iran in more than three years, with as many as 5,000 people participating in rallies and boycotts.

The students, some of whom have been arrested, have called for freedom of speech and major political reform in the Islamic nation.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has threatened to unleash forces to break up the protests, but he has also called for a review of the case, saying a man's life is at stake.

Word of the appeal came Monday, one day before the deadline set by the nation's judiciary.

Saleh Nikbakht: Aghajari says there are other interpretations of Islam
Saleh Nikbakht: Aghajari says there are other interpretations of Islam

However, it is not clear how much weight the appeal will carry, partly because the professor, Hashem Aghajari, had refused to appeal and challenged the authority of the court.

Saleh Nikbakht, Aghajari's attorney, said Monday that Aghajari had not requested the appeal, but he did not object when Nikbakht decided to file one.

Nikbakht has said Aghajari wants to send the message to young people that there are other interpretations of Islam.

The judiciary has not begun a review -- angering reformists and some hardliners.

The hardliners insist the judiciary is dragging its feet and failing to respond to an order from Khamenei. Reformists are hoping a review will lead to the sentence being overturned.

Aghajari's case reflects growing tensions in the country of 65 million people, where pro-reform President Mohammad Khatmi is locked in a power struggle with conservative opponents who control certain key institutions, including the police and judiciary.

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