TEHRAN, March 18 (AFP) - Iran's revolutionary courts effectively closed down the nation's main opposition party on Sunday, less than three months before the next presidential elections in June. The move came as the conservative judiciary banned three more publications close to the reform movement of embattled President Mohammad Khatami, whose supporters have expressed concern he may not run for a second term.
The Iran Freedom Movement (IFM), which until now had been tolerated despite an official ban, was barred from conducting any activities by the hardline revolutionary courts, which said it sought to overthrow the
"All activities of the so-called Iran freedom movement are forbidden and illegal," a court official said, just a week after around 20 people with links to the group were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy.
The official, quoted by state radio, said further details about the case would be made public in the near future.
The arrests were condemned by reformists including the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the nation's largest pro-reform party which is headed by Khatami's brother Mohammad-Reza.
Formed in the 1960s, the IFM played a key role in the nation's Islamic revolution of 1979, with founder Mehdi Bazargan serving as prime minister of the post-revolutionary provisional government.
Officially banned in 1988 by Iran's then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeiny, t appeals especially to young people and its several thousand members include academics, lawyers, doctors, journalists, architects and
more liberal clerics.
The progressive Islamist group has been on the front pages since last Sunday, when security forces swooped on a private Tehran home where around two dozen people with links to the group were meeting.
The group said the gathering was to celebrate the release of journalist Ahmad Zeid-Abadi after some eight months in prison, but the judiciary said those present were conspiring to oust the regime.
In its statement on state radio, the revolutionary tribunal said that IFM members were among those charged with "collaborating with counter-revolutionary and terrorist groups."
It said the ban on IFM activities extended to other unnamed "nationalist and religious" groups, effectively muzzling the liberal opposition before voters go to the polls in June.
Such groups are accused of "conspiring and sowing discord among the leadership of the regime," the revolutionary court said in its statement.
The ban comes after Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Friday blasted the foreign media for dividing the leadership of the nation by favouring reformists.
"The enemy seeks to divide us and thus hurt our regime," Khamenei said, calling on reformist leaders to "break free from propaganda in their favor."
Meanwhile three more reformist-leaning periodicals were shuttered on Sunday, the Tehran judiciary announced.
The weeklies Mobine and Jameh-e Madani as well as the monthly Peyam-e Emrouz were ordered to stop publication and their directors will be charged in court, state radio said, citing a judiciary official.
All are linked to Khatami's reform movement and considered hostile to conservatives, who have shown the limits of presidential power with their control over key state institutions such as the courts and police.
Some 30 publications have been closed down by the courts, including every major pro-reform daily paper, and several close allies of the president are among reformists who have been jailed or are facing charges.
Earlier Sunday, meanwhile, some 400 figures of Iran's progressive and liberal movements released a petition calling for the release of dissident cleric Hassan-Yussefi Eshkevari, another close ally of the president.
His fate is unknown after a secret trial by Iran's special religious court after he allegedly told a political conference in Germany last year that Muslim dress for women should be optional.
The petition was signed by the current head of the IFM, Ibrahim Yazdi, as well as Bazargan's son.