3 September AFP

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A row is raging in Iran between conservatives and reformists over public executions and floggings, which have seen a sharp rise over recent months, despite warnings from the judiciary to stay out of it.

"A wave of public floggings in Iran, already numbering some 200, has created renewed debate among political and religious figures," the media in Iran reported Monday. Local sources reported two more instances Sunday from the holy city of Qom, to the south of Tehran, where two men identified as Majid Ch. and Majid S. were flogged in public. Bracing for negative fallout, the provincial justice authority issued a statement saying that "since the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, has called for public punishment of offenders of the kind, they were flogged in line with the demands of Islamic law,".

Most of those who are flogged, including in Tehran's main squares, are charged with consuming alcohol or drugs, or having extra-marital sex. Public executions have also increased over recent months, pushed along by the conservative-controlled judiciary, despite frequent overt expressions of disapproval from spectators.

President Mohammad Khatami, who swept back to power in June, has no authority over the decisions of the judiciary, nor over their implementation. When questioned on the matter at a press conference Saturday, Khatami took a diplomatic line on what is a highly sensitive issue, as it touches on the authority of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The president said he was against the "politicisation" of the problem, adding that one must take "public interests" into account and apply a "certain discretion." But he repeated his rejection "of the version of Islam applied by the Taliban" in power in Afghanisation, responding to a statement from a conservative cleric, Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi, who said the Taliban had established a degree of security in that country.

However, the cleric sought Monday to distance himself from support of the Taliban, who are equally unpopular with Iran's conservatives and reformists. In the Kayhan International newspaper, he argued in an editorial that all he "wanted to say is that the Taliban, with all their violence and ugly stone-age actions, have established security for their people." A few days earlier, Khatami criticised in broad terms "repression" and "punishments" of young people, saying one should not expect them to be perfect.

An ayatollah from Qom, Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, had defended public executions and flogging, saying the practice was "a basic principle of Islam." Similarly, the head of the Iranian Supreme Court, Ayatollah Mohammadi Gilani, warned the overwhelmingly reformist members of parliament not to interfere in decisions over public punishment. "The deputies should not cross the line in their debates and should not get involved in Islamic jurisprudence," he said Thursday in comments quoted by the Kayhan paper. Their statements followed an emergency closed-door meeting of a parliamentary committee on the issue, following comments from Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi, a close aide of Khatami, who spoke of the "negative effects" of public floggings to Iran's image.

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