updated 8/26/2009 5:23:35 PM ET 2009-08-26T21:23:35

Iran's most senior dissident cleric on Wednesday criticized the ruling system under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a dictatorship in the name of Islam, the most serious attack on the country's top official following the disputed presidential election.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri said the ruling system showed its true nature with the violent crackdown against the hundreds of thousands who protested President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election and the torture of detainees that led to at least three deaths.

"The biggest oppression ... is despotic treatment of the people in the name of Islam," Montazeri said in a written response to some 300 activists that was posted on his Web site. "I hope the responsible authorities give up the deviant path they are pursuing and restore the trampled rights of the people."

Montazeri's comments are significant because although criticism of ruling figures has increased following the June election, which the opposition claims was stolen through vote fraud, public attacks against Khamenei are rare.

Montazeri's opinion carries weight because the 87-year-old cleric was once tapped to succeed the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's supreme leader. He was denied the post in the late 1980s because of his criticism of the excesses of the ruling system and his differences with Khomeini.

The turmoil following the presidential election has presented the current supreme leader, Khamenei, with the most serious challenge to the country's cleric-led system since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Khamenei and other hard-liners have attempted to paint the post-election turmoil as a plot by Iran's foreign enemies to overthrow the country's Islamic system through a "velvet revolution." The government is holding a mass trial of more than 100 political activists and protesters who it claims provoked the mass demonstrations.

A mockery of justice
The opposition has called the trial a "sham," and Montazeri said it has "ridiculed Islamic justice."

"I hope authorities ... have the courage to announce that this ruling system is neither a republic nor Islamic and that nobody has the right to express opinion or criticism," said Montazeri.

The government has confirmed that at least 30 people were killed in the post-election crackdown, but the opposition says at least 69 died and many more were tortured in prison. The abuse of detainees has also prompted criticism from conservatives, complicating Khamenei's efforts to end the turmoil.

Montazeri has called for curtailing the powers of Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters and is considered by hard-liners to be answerable only to God.

The dissident cleric spent five years under house arrest after saying in 1997 that Khamenei wasn't qualified to rule. The punishment has not silenced Montazeri, who has repeatedly said that the freedom that was promised after the Islamic revolution never materialized.

Montazeri is one of just a few grand ayatollahs, the most senior theologians of the Shiite Muslim faith.

But after he was placed under house arrest, state-run media stopped referring to Montazeri by his religious title, describing him instead as a "simple-minded" cleric.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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