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Lawmaker is freed from Iranian jail

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TEHRAN, Iran — A lawmaker who was jailed for criticizing Iran's hard-line judges was released Tuesday on a pardon by the country's supreme leader, after reformers in parliament staged a walkout protesting that conservatives were targeting them.

Hossein Loqmanian was the first legislator to be imprisoned for criticizing the government since the 1979 Islamic revolution. His jailing last month became the latest dispute in the power struggle between hard-liners and reformers trying to loosen political and social restrictions.

Liberals feared the arrest signaled that hard-liners — who have gagged the press, detained journalists and harrassed pro-democracy activists — were now opening a new front: targeting pro-reform lawmakers.

But with the pardon, the hard-liners appeared to back down. Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi — the head of the judiciary and one of the leading opponents to reform — wrote a letter to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recommending a pardon.

Khamanei agreed, state television reported Tuesday.

Loqmanian was later released and was welcomed with flowers and embraces from fellow lawmakers outside the doors of Evin prison, north of capital, Tehran.

"I will attend the open session of the parliament Wednesday. I thank all the people who defended my legal rights during my stay in jail," a smiling Loqmanian told reporters before he was driven away.

Loqmanian, who represents the western city of Hamedan in the 290-seat Parliament, was jailed Dec. 25 to serve a 10-month sentence for insulting the judiciary. Loqmanian had described court rulings as "unjust" and criticized the closure of dozens of pro-reform newspapers.

Hard-liners have been trying to thwart efforts led by President Mohammad Khatami since his 1997 election to bring more democratic reform and social freedoms under Iran's Islamic government.

The conservatives control many of the country's unelected bodies, particularly the judiciary, the police and the military. They have used those powers to close newspapers and arrest a number of reform activists.

Reformers said Loqmanian's arrest meant hard-liners was now trying to intimidate their opponents in parliament, which is dominated by Khatami supporters.

Parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi led a walkout from the chamber Tuesday after declaring he would not preside over the body as long as Loqmanian remained imprisoned.

In a speech to the parliament during live coverage of the session by Iranian state-run radio, Karroubi said "that the judicial branch has invaded the legislative branch" and called on Khamenei to step in to resolve the matter.

After his speech, Karroubi left the hall followed by most of the parliamentarians, who shouted "Karroubi we support you!" the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

On Sunday, about 60 lawmakers walked out of parliament to protest Loqmanian's imprisonment.

President Khatami has accused the judiciary of violating the constitution by prosecuting lawmakers despite their parliamentary immunity.

Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters, is seen as sympathetic to hard-liners, but he has intervened in favor of reformers in the past to prevent disputes from escalating — and that appeared to be the case with the pardon.

Earlier this month in an attempt to ease the tensions, Khamenei called all on three branches — the legislative, judicial and executive — to "work together in unity ... They should not undermine each other."

In cases similar to Loqmanian's, two other legislators have had their jail sentences upheld by an appeals court, but have not yet been jailed. Another legislator is appealing his jail sentence. All were convicted of various charged involving insulting officials and religious sanctities.

Meanwhile, state television quoted Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the oversight Guardian Council, as saying that all citizens are equal before the law and that lawmakers should not enjoy special immunity, since "immunity has no Islamic roots."

Jannati's comments were in response to a letter from Shahroudi who called on Jannati to interpret Article 86 of the constitution, which lawmakers say grants them immunity.