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Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami sharply criticized Iran's hard-liners for barring many reformists from running in parliament elections Friday, saying they were misusing Islam and that people should be able to choose their rulers freely.
The Guardian Council, a body of hard-line clerics and jurists tasked with vetting candidates, has barred more than 1,700 candidates from running - most of them reformists - on vague charges of not being sufficiently loyal to Islam and the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Khatami told a large gathering of reformist supporters in southern Teheran late Tuesday that "honest individuals" who were disqualified "are portrayed as deviant and supporters of America. This is deplorable. Worse is that it is done in the name of Islam," according to the speech posted on his Web site.
Allies of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other conservatives are widely expected to carry the elections, maintaining the hold they have had on parliament since 2004.
Khatami said that Iranians have the right to change the ruling establishment.
"People want freedom. The most important manifestation of freedom is the exercise of their sovereign right to determine their own destiny," Khatami said. "Freedom means people be allowed to question the ruling system and change it without use of force if the establishment doesn't respond to their demands."
The comments highlighted the sharp contrast in philosophies between reformists and hard-liners.
Conservative clerics say the legitimacy of the ruling establishment is derived from God. Under Iran's Islamic republic, unelected clerical bodies hold powers that trump those of the elected government, such as the ability to overrule laws or bar candidates. Hard-liners insist those powers are necessary to ensure popular elections don't contradict God's will.
Khatami, a liberal cleric, was elected president in 1997 and during his rule social restrictions under Iran's Islamic system were loosened. But hard-liners who control unelected bodies, the security forces and judiciary, prevented the reformist government from making deep changes in the law. Khatami stepped down in 2005 because of term limits, and Ahmadinejad won presidential elections.
Parliament's 290 seats are up for grabs in Friday's vote.
A rights group said Wednesday the voting would not be fair because of the disqualifications.
"The upcoming elections ... are contrary to the criteria for free, healthy and fair elections," the Committee Defending Free, Healthy and Fair Elections said in a statement.
"Prior to the people's vote, the will of some in positions of power has decided the fate of parliamentary seats," it said.