DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, (AP) – Tens of thousands of Iranian mourners — many chanting protest slogans — joined the funeral procession Monday for the country’s most senior dissident cleric, who had described government crackdowns as the work of power-hungry despots.
Iranian authorities have barred foreign media from covering the processions in the holy city of Qom for Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who died Sunday at age 87. But witnesses said many mourners shouted protest cries including “Death to the Dictator” in displays of anger against Iran’s ruling establishment.
There were no immediate reports of serious clashes from the witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of arrest by Iranian authorities. Some opposition Web sites noted scuffles and violence, but the reports could not immediately be confirmed.
On Monday, access to the Internet in Iran was slow, and cellular telephone service was unreliable. The government has periodically restricted communications in an attempt to prevent protesters from organizing.
Security was extremely tight in Qom, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Tehran, as people streamed in along the single highway from the capital, Tehran.
The funeral rites for Montazeri pushed Iranian authorities into a difficult spot. They were obliged to pay respects to one of the patriarchs of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the one-time heir apparent to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
But officials also worried that Montazeri’s death — and upcoming memorials — could become new rallying points for opposition demonstrations.
Montazeri broke with the regime in the 1980s after claiming that the ruling clerics violated the ideals of the revolution by taking absolute power rather than serving as advisers to political leaders. He spent five years under house arrest and had only a minor role in political affairs after being released in 2003.
But the outrage after June’s disputed presidential election gave him a new voice that resonated with a younger generation. His most pivotal moments came in the summer when he denounced the “despotic” tactics and “crimes” of the ruling clerics — a bold step that encouraged protesters to break taboos about criticism of Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In demonstrations earlier this month, students shouted “Death to the dictator!” and burned pictures of Khamenei.
Many people during Monday’s funeral made references to the Green Movement of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who joined the procession in Qom, witnesses said. Opposition leaders had called for people to turn out for a day of mourning, and Mousavi described Montazeri’s death as a “great loss.”
On Sunday, Khamenei praised Montazeri as a respected Islamic scholar, but noted his falling out with Khomeini and other leaders of the revolution.
Montazeri’s grandson, Nasser Montazeri, said he died in his sleep overnight. The Web site of Iranian state television quoted doctors as saying Montazeri had suffered from asthma and arteriosclerosis, a disease that thickens and hardens arteries.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said one of Montazeri’s followers and a government critic, Ahmad Ghabel, was arrested while driving to Qom with his family to attend the funeral. The New York-based group called on the government not to interfere in the commemorations.
Another prominent critic, filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad, was arrested on a charge of insulting officials, the state news agency IRNA reported Sunday. Nourizad, once a conservative government supporter, wrote a letter of protest to Khamenei in September urging him to apologize to the nation for the postelection crackdown.
Montazeri was one of the leaders of the revolution and he helped draft the nation’s new constitution, which was based on a concept called velayat-e faqih, or rule by Islamic jurists. That concept enshrined a political role for Islamic clerics in the new system.
But a deep ideological rift soon developed with Khomeini. Montazeri envisioned the Islamic experts as advisers to the government who should not have outright control to rule themselves. He was also among those clerics who believed the power of the supreme leader comes from the people, not from God.
Taking an opposing view, Khomeini and his circle of clerics consolidated absolute power.