Hundreds of students at Tehran University renewed anti-government protests for a second week on Sunday, accusing authorities of fabricating images of demonstrators burning photos of the Islamic Republic's revered founder.
Students moved to the forefront of opposition on the streets with massive protests last week. They say authorities are using the images of burning photos as a pretext to crack down on their protests, which have helped revitalize the pro-reform movement.
State television has repeatedly shown images, ostensibly taken during student-led protests on Dec. 7, of unidentified hands burning and tearing up pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It was a grave and illegal insult against the former leader, still widely respected in the country. The elite Revolutionary Guard, the country's most powerful military force, called for the trial and punishment of those responsible.
Mohammad Nourizad, a filmmaker and activist, said that no matter who was behind the destruction of his photo, the offense pales in significance to the killing of protesters and the violation of people's rights. Iran's opposition says at least 72 protesters were killed in the weeks after the disputed June presidential election, while the government puts the number of confirmed dead at 30.
"When I saw how you tore up Imam (Khomeini's) road map for respecting people's rights and protecting their dignity, I had no power but to tear up his photo," Nourizad said sarcastically. He said the government was using the issue as a "childish tactic" against its opponents.
Student activists say authorities are trying to discredit them just as they begin to put up a new, powerful challenge to the regime. The opposition's mainstream leaders have struggled to dent the power of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's clerical leadership.
Students at Tehran University played a major role in street demonstrations in support of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that that toppled to pro-U.S. shah and brought Iran's clerical rulers to power.
Reformists contend that Ahmadinejad was re-elected by massive vote fraud, a belief that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets at the height of post-election unrest. The protests evolved into a broader confrontation against the country's ruling theocracy, but eventually died down in the face of a harsh crackdown by security forces stifled the street demonstrations.
Former President Mohammad Khatami, a prominent opposition voice, also said students were not behind the destruction of the photos.
"Do not use the Imam to justify a harsher approach against those you do not like," he was quoted as saying on a pro-reform Web site called Parlemannews.
Video circulated widely on the Internet on the day of last week's protests also showed photos of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad being burned, as well as one photo of Khamenei and Khomeini side by side. The faces of those burning the pictures could not be seen and loud chants against the government were heard in the background.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, appealed for calm but suggested the opposition was creating a hostile environment.
"Some have turned the election campaign into a campaign against the entire system," he said without naming any opposition leaders. "We call on those who are angry to remain calm."
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi has said his supporters love Khomeini and would not take actions that insulted him. The post-election protests, led by Mousavi, borrowed tactics from Khomenei's Islamic Revolution, such as shouting "Allahu Akbar" from the rooftops of Tehran in a nightly protest.
During Sunday's demonstration, students held up photos of Khomeini. One women wrapped his picture around her head like a hat and hid the rest of her face behind a scarf in the green color of the opposition.
Dozens of police ringed Tehran University but did not enter the campus because they are barred by law from doing so. No violence was reported.
Last week's demonstrations, in which tens of thousands of students protested for two days on campuses in the capital, Tehran, and other parts of the country, did spark violence as hard-line students scuffled with their rivals. They were the largest anti-government rallies in months, and there were also a number of demonstrations outside of campuses.
Angry government supporters, including hard-line clerics, rallied on Friday and Saturday to denounce those who burned photos of Khamenei. Tens of thousands turned out on Saturday.
Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution, is revered by both the opposition and the ruling system. But Khamenei is a much more divisive figure, seen by the opposition as an dictator who rules with an iron fist.
During last week's rallies, protesters shouted "Death to the oppressor, whether it's the shah or the leader!" _ making a daring comparison between Khamenei and the pro-U.S. shah, despised in Iran since his overthrow.
Khamenei warned opposition leaders to stay away from the student protesters.
"Why don't they learn when leaders of oppression and arrogance, the U.S., France and Britain, support them," state TV quoted Khamenei as saying. "Open your eyes and stay away," he said.
The Revolutionary Guard called for legal action against those who burned the photos of Khomeini.
"The Revolutionary Guard ... won't tolerate any silence or hesitation in the immediate identification, trial and punishment of those carrying out this ugly insult and the agents behind them," it said in a statement posted on its Web site.
Under the law, insults to the late or current supreme leader can lead to two years of prison.