Iran's opposition leaders faced new threats Thursday with the state prosecutor warning they could be put on trial if they do not denounce this week's anti-government protests — the worst unrest since the aftermath of the disputed June election.
The warning came a day after crowds at pro-government rallies chanted calls for the execution of the opposition leaders and a group posted an online threat that suicide squads were ready to assassinate those leaders if the judiciary did not punish them within a week.
For a second straight day, government supporters staged a rally wearing white funeral shrouds to symbolize a willingness to die in defense of Iran's clerical rulers. Several hundred turned out for Thursday's demonstration in southern Tehran outside the offices of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, state radio reported.
Iran's internal strife has taken a violent and bitter turn for the worse since Sunday, when at least eight people were killed in clashes between security forces and opposition protesters on Ashoura, a sacred day for Shiite Muslims.
It was the worst violence since huge street protests — some drawing hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators — erupted into clashes with security forces and militiamen in the weeks following the election. A harsh crackdown ended those protests. But the opposition movement has regained momentum over the last few weeks even though security forces continue the crackdown.
State prosecutor Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehei said the opposition leaders could be accused of supporting people who defy God by protesting against the government last Sunday. He said the leaders may face charges of "supporting apostates," or those who go against God. His comments were published in state-owned Iran newspaper.
The police posted on their Web site about 100 pictures of protesters involved in Sunday's demonstrations, asking the public to help identify and report them on suspicion of "damaging public property and insulting sanctities."
State agency says opposition leaders fled Tehran
Late Wednesday, Iran's official news agency IRNA reported that opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and another top figure, Mahdi Karroubi, had fled Tehran amid the threats. But Karroubi's son, Taghi Karroubi, disputed that report and told The Associated Press that his father and Mousavi, were both at their homes in Tehran.
"The people who must escape are the ones whose hands are tainted with the blood of Iranian people," Taghi Karroubi said. "Unfortunately, the government news agency is spreading false news like the government itself."
At mass pro-government rallies and marches around the country Wednesday, some marchers were seen wearing the symbolic white shrouds, whole others called for the execution of Mousavi and Karroubi.
Demonstrators in Tehran chanted "Death to Mousavi" and others shouted "Rioter hypocrites must be executed." Addressing demonstrators in Tehran, hard-line cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda called opponents of the supreme leader cows and goats and supporters of Satan.
The online threat came from a previously unknown group calling itself the Bright Shooting Star Suicide Bombers Brigade. It said a group of suicide attackers has been set up in the holy city of Qom, 80 miles south of the capital. There was no way to immediately verify the existence of the group or assess its threat.
Officials said more than 500 protesters have been arrested since Sunday's clashes and the number could be even higher. Many will likely be tried for apostasy — a crime punishable by death under Iranian law — as well as attempts to topple the government and fomenting the post-election turmoil.
Iran has already sentenced five defendants to death in an ongoing mass trial of more than 100 opposition activists and figures. More than 80 were sentenced to prison from six months to 15 years.
Ejehei said prosecution of the opposition leaders would not be forgotten.
"The charge of supporting apostates and those who defied God will be added to their past charges," he said.
Iran's deputy chief of judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi told the official IRNA news agency on Thursday that those detained over Sunday's unrest would be charged with violating public order and "Moharebe," which is Farsi for defying God.