By Christina Fincher
WRAPUP 2: Qom-based pro-reform clerics also call for release of protestors.
A pro-reform Iranian clerical group said on Sunday the outcome of last month's presidential vote was "invalid", even though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has upheld the result.In a sign of a deepening rift among Shi'ite clerics, the Assembly of Qom Seminary Scholars and Researchers also called for the release of Iranians arrested in protests after the hardline president was declared winner of the June 12 vote.
"Other candidates' complaints and strong evidence of vote-rigging were ignored ... peaceful protests by Iranians were violently oppressed ... dozens of Iranians were killed and hundreds were illegally arrested," said a statement published on the Assembly's website. "The outcome is invalid."
Qom is Iran's centre of Shi'ite learning, about 80 miles (125 km) south of Tehran. The assembly has little political influence but its statement is a significant act of defiance since Qom is the power base of the clerical establishment.
It follows calls by hardliners for leaders of the protests, in which at least 20 people were killed, to be put on trial.
The demonstrations were the most striking display of dissent in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution and the elite Revolutionary Guards on Sunday accused opposition leaders of "trying to overthrow the Islamic establishment".
"We had forecast a velvet revolution. But it was neutralised by our vigilance," the official IRNA news agency quoted General Yadollah Javani as saying.
Iran's police chief said on Wednesday 1,032 people had been detained during the protests in Tehran but most had been freed. Human Rights activists say as many as 2,000 people, including opposition leaders, professors, journalists and students, may be still be held across the country.
On Sunday Iran said it had released a Greek journalist covering the election for the Washington Times, while British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said one of two British embassy employees detained in Iran would be freed later in the day.
The Foreign Ministry said later Tehran had told them the employee had been released but that it had yet to make contact.
European Union countries had summoned Iran's envoys to their capitals in protest at the arrests and Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency, welcomed the reported release.
"This is a constructive step in agreement with what had been discussed in the contact we have had in recent days," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on his blog, noting one employee remained under arrest which was unacceptable to the EU.
Iranian officials deny the election was rigged, saying it was the "healthiest" since the 1979 revolution. They have clamped down on the protests, but opponents say they will not give up.
While some clerics, such as Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi, are aligned with hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at least two grand ayatollahs, dissident Hossein Ali Montazeri and moderate Yusof Saanei, had already criticised the authorities.
"With all these problems, how can the result be recognised as legitimate? How can the next government be recognised as legitimate," the Qom assembly statement said.
Two losing moderate candidates, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, have also said the result is illegitimate.
"A government which lacks people's backing does not have legitimacy ... Our fight will continue," Karoubi said in a statement published on his website on Sunday.
The hardline Kayhan newspaper said in an editorial: "Mousavi and his supporters are dangerous opposition for the establishment."
Hossein Shariatmadari, a top aide to Khamenei, called on Saturday for Mousavi and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami to be tried for committing "terrible crimes".
Iran accuses foreign powers, especially Britain and the United States, of inciting the anti-government protests to carry out a "velvet" revolution to undermine the Islamic Republic.
Tehran had arrested nine local British embassy staff but seven of them were later released.
On Friday, hardline cleric Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council that certified the election result, said the detained British embassy staffers had confessed and would face trial for inciting street protests.
In response to the detentions, EU countries summoned Iranian envoys and have pledged a strong, collective response to any Iranian harassment of staff at European embassies. (Reuters)