TEHRAN 16 Feb. (IPS) A Supreme Court in the religious city of Qom has annulled a previous death sentence against Mr. Hashem Aqajari, declaring it "invalid" in regard of the existing laws, according to informed sources.

Mr. Aqajari, an islamist reformer, scholar and a war invalid, was condemned to death six months ago by a court in the western city of Hamadan, accused of "sab al nabi", or insulting Muslim’s prophet Mohammad, during a conference on "Protestantism in Islam", in which he told the audience that faithful are not "apes" to follow the clergy "blinded".

He was also condemned to eight years of imprisonment and barred from professional activities for ten years.

The surprising sentence against the outspoken reformist, who is also a member of the Mohajedeen of the Islamic Revolution Organisation (MIRO), the most important component of the reformist movement that back President Mohammad Khatami, created a national and international outrage, and triggered a month-long peaceful protest by the students.

The leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, bowing to mounting pressures from the university campus, had ordered the Appeals Court to review the death verdict, but the Judiciary had dashed the decision, saying the "hypocrite" must be dealt according to Islam's laws.

The independent Iranian Students News Agency "ISNA" quoted Judge Mohammad Sajjadi as having said that three out of the four judges of the High Court in Qom who studied the case over the last month decided that the previous judgement was not "legal" and has to be reviewed by the country’s Appeals Court.

"The case is to be send back to Hamadan were it originated", Mr. Sajjadi said.

Sources said recent pressures from the European Union on the Islamic Republic, linking the signing of an important Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with questions of human rights in Iran were not "stranger" to the annulment of the death verdict.

They also noted that the decision was announced as a five members team from the United Nations Human Rights Commission had arrived in Tehran to discuss the question of political prisoners, cases of torture, discrimination, abductions and imprisoning prisoners in secret jails.

The mission, invited by Iran, was to visit the notorious Evin prison on Sunday, but Dr. Alireza Noorizadeh, a London-based independent Iranian journalist say the team is prevented by the Iranian authorities to meet with families of political prisoners and any contact with them, even by telephone, is blocked by the staff of the hotel where they are staying. ENDS AQAJARI 16203