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ARKIB : 07/05/1999

Tehran's Jailed Mayor A Former Cleric Turned Maverick Politician

TEHRAN May 6 - Gholamhossein Karbaschi, who was jailed for corruption and misuse of public funds Thursday after a year-long legal battle, is a former cleric who as Tehran mayor changed the face of Iran's over-crowded capital.

Karbaschi was convicted and sentenced to two years in jail last year but only gave himself up on Thursday, still protesting that he was no thief and accusing his detractors of seeking to turn ''justice into injustice.''

The 45-year-old reformer, who leads the moderate Executives of Construction party, began his education at Koranic schools in the holy city of Qom and in Esfahan, both in central Iran, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

He was promoted to the rank of Hojatoleslam, one level below ayatollah, before shedding his frock and turban for Western-style dress.

As a young man he fought against the regime of the former shah, who was toppled in the 1979 Islamic revolution, and spent time in jail.

After the revolution, Karbaschi was appointed by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as his personal representative in the then Gendarmerie, which later became the police force.

After a brief stint at the state-run radio and television organisation, the young activist was given a sensitive post as governor of Esfahan, recognised by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site.

Karbaschi won attention for his administrative abilities after he returned Esfahan to its previous charm, much of which had been lost during the chaos of the revolution and the 1980-1988 war against Iraq.

After Iran's pragmatic former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected in 1989, he brought Karbaschi to Tehran and put him in charge of a city of 10 million people wrecked by war and neglect.

The mayor gave the city a face-lift through cleanup and green campaigns, and built cultural houses, sports grounds, libraries and art galleries.

He tried to cultivate a 'Robin Hood' image by taxing the rich and spending the money on social services for the poor, and his municipality later set up a flamboyant newspaper, Hamshahri, to publicize his reformist agenda.

His modern Western-style ideas angered Iran's traditional forces, but it was not until three years ago, when he started to politically challenge the powerful establishment ahead of legislative elections, that he became a bete noire of the orthodox clergy.

He further undermined the conservatives when he actively campaigned for Mohammad Khatami in the presidential election in May 1997 against a conservative rival.

His arrest in April 1998 and subsequent trial opened up a deep rift between moderate supporters of Khatami and conservatives who are even today struggling to clamp down on reform in the Islamic republic.

The judicial authorities, headed by a conservative cleric, had accused the municipality of misusing public funds for political campaigns, a charge denied by the mayor.

It was shortly after the May presidential election that dozens of city officials were picked up in connection with the corruption scandal. Several of Karbaschi's top aides were also tried and sentenced to lengthy jail terms.

Karbaschi has won the praise of many for his strong administrative abilities, while his detractors accuse him of being an egotistical and dictatorial operator. - AFP

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