Irans dissident Grand Ayatollah Montazeri passes away at 87

TEHRAN: One of Iran's most prominent dissident clerics, Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri, has died aged 87. Hoseyn Ali Montazeri was a moving spirit in the 1979 revolution which created Iran's Islamic state, and was at one stage set to become its leader.

One of Shia Islam's most respected figures, he was also a leading critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The death comes at a crucial time in a standoff between the government and opposition.

Iran's rulers will now fear the opposition may attempt a big turnout for his funeral and other ceremonies marking his death, especially in the run-up to the Shia Muslim festival of Ashura on December 27. Large crowds have gathered outside Montazeri's home in the clerical city of Qom, where he is due to be buried tomorrow morning. The cleric's son said that his father had died of natural causes. The state-owned Irna news agency said: "Hoseyn Ali Montazeri passed away in his home last [Saturday] night."

A thorn in the establishment's side, Montazeri issued a fatwa condemning President Ahmadinejad's government after June's disputed election. But that was not his first clash with authority - he repeatedly accused the country's rulers of imposing dictatorship in the name of Islam and said the liberation that was supposed to have followed the 1979 revolution never happened.

During his lifetime, the cleric was transformed from a pillar of the Islamic revolution to one of the most vocal critics of its leadership. He had been designated to succeed the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but the pair fell out over Iran's human rights record a few months before Khomeini died of cancer in 1989.

In 1997 he famously clashed with Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom he outranked in the religious hierarchy, after questioning the powers of the Supreme Leader. This led to the closure of Montazeri's religious school and an attack on his office in Qom. He was placed under house arrest for six years.

After his detention, state-run media began referring to him as a "simple-minded" cleric, references to him in schoolbooks were erased and streets named after him were renamed, but he remained defiant.

Born into a provincial family and educated at a seminary, Hoseyn Ali Montazeri came to prominence as one of the early supporters of Imam Khomeini.

Prior to the overthrow of the Iranian monarchy, he organised public protests in support of Imam Khomeini, following the latter's arrest. As a result he was repeatedly detained himself and tortured in jail.

While Imam Khomeini was in exile in Iraq, Montazeri was nominated as his representative in Iran.