TEHRAN 23 Apr. (IPS) In one of the biggest blow to the reformist camp that supports President Mohammad Khatami, the leader-controlled Islamic Judiciary ordered Sunday without warning the closure of three influential moderate publications while a third journalist was send to prison.

Editors of "Fath" and "Asre Azadegan" dailies and the bi-weekly "Iran Farda" as well as other publishers and journalists immediately denounced the decision as "unlawful" but observed they might have no choice "but to comply".

Informed sources said that other newspapers, possibly "Mosharekat", the organ of the pro-Khatami Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF) and "Sobhe Emrouz" might as well be ordered to shut down, adding that "Arya", another pro-reform daily was also closed down.

Though the move surprised everyone, yet it was expected ever since Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, the embattled leader of the Islamic Republic had singled out the reformist press he bitterly hates as "the double faced internal enemy serving as base for them, attacking and criticising unbridledly everything, everyone, the clergy, the Basij, the Revolutionary Guards, the foundations".

In one of his harshest remarks made last week to the Basijis (zealot volunteers) Mr. Ali Khameneh'i had uttered openly his fundamental dislike of the vibrant independent press and gave the green light for new assaults on the reformist movement fostered by President Khatami.

Meeting the press Saturday, Mr. Ata'ollah Mohajerani, the Islamic Guidance Minister had ruled out as "false" rumours about the impending closure of some dailies, saying if this was to happen he would prefer to resign instead to serve as "an instrument" for the shutting down of newspapers.

His reaction to the judiciary's decision to shut the three dailies was not available at the writing of this item, but informed sources it was unlikely that he would resign.

Mr. Reza Alijani, Editor of Iran Farda and Mr. Morteza Kazemian, the political editor of Fath told Persian services of BBC and Radio France Internationale that the order was sent by the conservatives-controlled Special Press Court (SPC) to both publishers and the printers as well as the Deputy Guidance Minister for interior press affairs, telling them to stop publishing at once.

A journalist at Asre Azadegan contacted by Iran Press service said while editors, publishers and staff were trying desperately to contact judicial authorities to get some explanation for the surprising order, but considering the present situation and political atmosphere created by the conservatives following the recent address of Ayatollah Khameneh'i, "it seems we have no other choice but to bow".

"Under the law, they have no such legal right to impose suspension of publication, but taking into account that the decision had been taken hastily, there is no doubt that there is a strong political will behind the move", one journalist noted, referring to the leader's anti-independent press speech.

What worries most the world of the moderate press this time is that the new law approved last week by the outgoing conservatives-controlled Majles and aimed at curtailing press freedom prohibits both publishers and owners of banned publications to buy or hire existing but unpublished or weak titles in the one hand and the owners of licences to sell or rent theirs to others, as it would happen before, when Mr. Hamid Reza Jala'ipour, publisher of Jaam'eh was able to replace it successviely by Toos and Neshat before his last paper, Asre Azadegan.

The closure of the three publications followed shortly after Mr. Latif Safari, the Managing Editor of the banned "Neshat" daily was sent to prison for 30 months following a Tehran Appeals Court upholding an earlier condemnation for "insulting the sanctities and foundations of Islam, vilifying commanders of the Law Enforcement Forces and MPs and inciting people and students to unrest and strike".

Neshat was ordered to close last September following the publication of an article written by an Iranian human rights activist living in England condemning the principle of execution and Mr. Safari was sentenced to one and half year imprisonment, charged with "questioning basic laws of Islam, including that of Talion and execution.

He was the second prominent journalist imprisoned in as many days, the SPC having jailed on Saturday Mr. Akbar Ganji, the acclaimed investigative journalist, writer, researcher and scholar known for his articles and books revealing the role of the Intelligence Ministry under both the former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his notorious Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Fallahian in the murder of more than eighty dissident politicians and intellectuals.

A week earlier, Mr. Masha'allah Shamsolva'ezin, the Editor of Neshat and latter Asre Azadegan had been thrown in prison over the same accusation as Mr. Safari and it is expected that another investigative journalist, Mr. Emameddin Baqi would join them next week for same charges of insulting Islam, the Islamic Republic, Revolutionary Guards, Majles conservative MPs, the Expediency Council etc.

The closure of the pro-reform press and the arrest of reformist journalists follows an all out orchestrated campaign by the conservatives aimed at preventing at "any cost" the inauguration of the next session of the Majles, the first in the 20 years-old Islamic Republic to be dominated by the moderates.

Short of ammunition for their campaign, the conservatives used as powder a meeting organised two weeks ago in Berlin by the Heinrich-Boll Institute to examine the aftermath of these otherwise historic elections.

The meeting, at which participated 17 prominent Iranian journalists, scholars, political analysts, experts, as well as a lawyer, publisher and cleric invited by the Germans was marred by noisy demonstrations organised by Iranians groups opposed to the Islamic regime and exiled animated by other motivations, staging scenes of sexy Iranian dances coupled with a female model taking off her clothes in front of shocked speakers except her bra and an Islamic scarf and a man totally undressed.

Footages of these scenes were shown on the leader-controlled Television in two half an hour programs aimed at provoking the outrage of the zealot Shi'a Muslims in the one hand and giving the conservatives the occasion of blasting not only those who took part at the conference but particularly the reformists all together on the other.

Petitions were send to Mr. Khameneh'i urging him to take action, hard line theologians and ayatollahs condemned the meeting as insulting to Islamic values and the participants as collaborators with enemies of Islam and the Islamic Republic, Revolutionary Guards and the present conservatives-controlled Majles expressed their desolation and the Assembly of Experts, a body charged to supervise the action of the leader urged the faithful to follow the leader's call in "uprooting the corrupt wild seeds", meaning the independent press.

Observing that the US State Department had expressed it's concern over the fate of the Iranian press following remarks by Ayatollah Khameneh'i, the Assembly concluded that Washington was behind the reformist publications.

Reacting to the malicious screening of offending parts of the Berlin meeting, Hojatoleslam Hasan Yusefi-Eshkevari whom the hard liners are calling for his defrocation said the whole business is to create tension in order to stop the reform and democratisation process fostered by President Khatami.

"What is taking place now is not new, as we have seen it before when the same people used a play in a very limited circulated students bulletin named Mowj or an article about execution in a newspaper they closed afterward to mount same kind of ferocious, unscrupulous campaign to undermine the reform process. The same as they did not succeeded before, this time they would not be able to tear down the wall of democratisation and freedom by banging their heads against it", he pointed out. REFORMIST PAPERS CLOSED 23400