Monday, July 18, 2005

Akbar Ganji in the prison of Iran (Open Democracy)

The jailed Iranian journalist and dissident Akbar Ganji is defying the Tehran regime through hunger striking. Can international pressure save his life? Masoud Behnoud, Ganji’s former prison comrade and fellow journalist, reports.

The Iranian journalist and dissident, Akbar Ganji, is nearing death after thirty-four days of the latest phase of a hunger strike. Photographs taken after thirty days have at last awakened the world's conscience to his plight; today, 18 July, he has been rushed to hospital from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison where he has been incarcerated. Iran’s president (until the inauguration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in early August), Mohammad Khatami and the United States President George W Bush have each demanded his freedom. Will it be enough to save him?

Ganji, who was sentenced in January 2001 to ten years imprisonment for his investigative articles and speeches, announced his hunger strike on 20 May with the words: “No one should be imprisoned – not even for a second – for expressing an opinion”. He and other Iranian dissident intellectuals are fighting for free speech against an extreme religious ideology based on violence, dictatorship, fanaticism and terrorism.

The Islamic Republic of Iran held a presidential election in June 2005 whose procedures and results are highly questionable by international democratic standards. Now it is preparing to launch itself into a new era, using oil wealth and empowering a younger generation of their militant followers to perpetuate its authoritarian rule.

But this attempt by the ruling clergy to change the face of the regime faces strong opposition. In the decisive second round of the election, only slightly more than 20% of the Iranian people voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Akbar Ganji is one of the most prominent voices among the reformist groups and individuals who form a significant component of Iranian society. Thousands of intellectuals, university students and political activists have signed open letters and petitions for the release of this human-rights champion and appealed to the international community for solidarity, even at great risk to themselves.

Ganji sent a letter from prison that can be considered his will and testament. In it, he says that if he dies in custody the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, will be responsible. This is because Khamenei has allowed extremists gradually to take control of the judiciary and the majlis (parliament), and once Ahmadinejad accedes to the presidency they will also have the executive branch in their hands.

This too is one reason why Akbar Ganji’s case inspires hope as well as fear among Iranian activists. So far the Iranian regime has managed to ignore pressure by international human-rights organisations; but if now it can be forced to show weakness in the face of domestic and international pressure, the reformists and human-rights campaigners will be inspired to demand more.

A time of trial

Ganji is in prison alongside students, political dissidents, members of ethnic minorities, journalists and lawyers whose only crime is defending human rights. Many of these detainees suffer unaccountable violence: the case of the Canadian-Iranian journalist, Zahra Kazemi, who was killed in prison in 2003 and whose body the Iranian authorities refused to hand over to her son in Canada, is only one of the most prominent.

Tehran's prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, who is incriminated in Kazemi's murder, is being proposed as the next minister of justice. Mortazavi and like-minded hardliners, with the direct assistance of radical clerics, have now succeeded in promoting their favoured candidate to the presidency. The atmosphere of impunity around this elite is revealed in the fact that one of Ahmadinejad's campaign managers was Saeed Asgar, who shot and gravely wounded the main theorist of the reformist camp, Saeed Hajjarian. Asgar, despite his confession, received a light sentence and was quickly released from jail.

Another companion of Ganji, the prominent Iranian lawyer and author Nasser Zarafshan, has gone on hunger strike after three years in prison. His detention resulted from his willingness to represent the families of four intellectuals murdered in autumn 1998. The same court that condemned Zarafshan convened behind closed doors to punish the murderers, but failed.

Five years ago, I was in Evin prison with Akbar Ganji for five months. We shared our condition with scores of journalists and writers. During this time we were denied all normal facilities available to “ordinary” prisoners (murderers, thieves and drug smugglers). Ganji and Zarafshan announced two months ago that their prison hardships had led them to contract diseases that required hospitalisation. But prison and judiciary officials, all belonging to the regime’s “militant” wing, ignored their pleas and responded that they would happily see the prisoners dead.

During the election campaign, Iranian authorities did allow Ganji a temporary release from prison to seek medical help. The measure, clearly a propaganda tool to seduce people to vote, backfired when Ganji spoke out in several interviews. He told me in a BBC World Service debate that he would go on indefinite hunger strike if returned to prison. A few hours later, prison officers assailed his small house in north Tehran, and seized him.

His voice still rings in my ears:
"I don't want anything but the freedom of Iranian people, even if I have to give my life. The rulers of the Islamic Republic should know that, although (people like) Ganji might be eliminated, the hope for freedom will not die away."

The 2003 Nobel peace prizewinner and lawyer Shirin Ebadi, is defending Akbar Ganji. She said in London on 13 July that all her efforts had been fruitless: Ganji had had no choice but to continue his hunger strike.

There is no doubt that Akbar Ganji is prepared to sacrifice himself. To save his life by pressure on the Tehran regime would be to light a beacon for Iranian democracy and for global human rights. While there is still time, the effort must continue.

Taken from Open Democracy