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Families protest trial of Iranians

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TEHRAN, Iran — The trial of 15 Iranian dissidents charged with plotting to overthrow the Islamic establishment began behind closed doors Tuesday at the hard-line Revolutionary Court in Tehran.

Outside the courthouse, some 20 family members of the defendants staged a sit-in demonstration in below-freezing temperatures to protest the closing of the trial to the public. They said they were prevented from entering the court.

One defense lawyer said he was barred, but that colleagues were able to attend, and another said he had resigned to protest court procedures.

Inside, the list of charges were read to the defendants during a hearing that lasted three hours, said defense lawyer Amir Hosseinabadi. He said he was not legally allowed to comment further.

Narges Mohammadi, the wife of accused activist and writer Taqi Rahmani, called the trial a mockery of justice.

"There is nothing valid about this trial," she told reporters. Mohammadi said her husband had been charged with "apostasy," or renouncing his religion, which carries the death sentence in Iran.

The defendants are mainly writers, journalists and university professors from the liberal National Religious Alliance. Most were arrested in March for attending a meeting at the home of a prominent political activist, and some were arrested later. If convicted, they could face long prison terms.

Defendants include opposition leaders Habibollah Peyman and Ezatollah Sahabi, and journalist Reza Alijani, who recently won an award from the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

Mohammad Ali Jedari-Foroughi, the lawyer for Rahmani and Alijani, said he had handed his resignation to the court on Tuesday because he was not shown the indictments or allowed to meet with the defendants.

Iran has been caught up in a power struggle between religious liberals and conservatives that intensified after the 1997 election of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. The popular president was re-elected last year for another four-year term.

Since last year, the hard-liners have illegally closed down nearly every liberal publication, jailing and intimidating journalists, academics and activists. They have also jailed legislators who dared to criticize the heavy-handed tactics.

Iranian reformers and international human rights groups have criticized the trial. In a statement ahead of the trial, Reporters Without Borders said it was worried the accused were not getting a strong defense.

"We have full reason to fear that these journalists will not be given a fair trial. To date their advocates have not had access to their clients' files nor even to the indictment," the group's general secretary, Robert Menard, said in a written statement Monday.

The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday.