The Akbar Ganji Case

In the Iron Grip of Iran's Judiciary

The journalist Akbar Ganji, who has been in prison for over five years now, is one of the most important members of the opposition movement in Iran. He has been on hunger strike now for more than 50 days. Bahman Nirumand reports

photo: DW
After 50 days of hunger strike, Akbar Ganji's condition is serious - but not even his laywers - among them Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi - are allowed to see him

​​On the 36th day of Akbar Ganji's hunger strike he was admitted to the state Milad hospital in Teheran supposedly because of a torn meniscus. The ward where he lies has been declared a military no-go area. Neither his relations, nor his lawyers - including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Schirin Ebadi - have been permitted to visit the prisoner as of yet. Only his wife was allowed to visit him briefly three days after his admission.

After taking part in an Iran conference in Berlin organised by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Ganji was arrested in 2000 and initially sentenced to ten years in prison and five years internal exile. This sentence was later reduced to six years' imprisonment.

An intellectual as Khomeini's bodyguard

The critical journalist is part of the generation that enthusiastically followed Ayatollah Khomeini's call to found an Islamic State at the start of the revolution twenty-six years ago. Ganji even worked as Khomeini's bodyguard for a while.

However, like most intellectuals, he became disillusioned with the theocracy after a few years and turned his back on it. Having completed his degree in sociology, he started working as a freelance journalist.

Ganji also published the weekly newspaper Rah-e no (New Way). The newspaper was a forum for religious instructors that focussed in particular on the relationship between Islam and the modern age. The newspaper was banned shortly after its foundation. Ganji later wrote for a variety of newspapers and magazines.

Investigative journalism in the Mullah state

Ganji came to fame for uncovering the role of the government, and in particular the former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in a series of murderous attacks on dissident writers and intellectuals, especially the so-called chain murders of the year 1999.

Ganji went on hunger strike to protest at the conditions in which he was being held; he demands his unconditional release. But the judiciary, which is under heavy pressure both domestically and at international level - not only international human rights organisations, but also US President Bush and the EU parliament have called for Ganji's release - wants to attach conditions to his release.

Ganji is being asked to retract his critical statements. According to Ganji himself, he has been threatened with another harsh sentence if he does not comply with this demand. For some time now, Ganji has been suffering from severe asthma and acute back pain and requires urgent treatment outside the prison.

Demonstrating how dissidents are treated in Iran

In a letter dated 14 July, he explains why he chose the path of "self-destruction" to reach the goal that he set himself. He points out that he rejects all forms of violence, but wants to show the world how "dissidents" are treated in the Islamic Republic.

Over the course of the past few years, over one hundred newspapers have been banned and numerous journalists imprisoned at the instigation of the revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei, who has described the free press as the base of the enemies of the theocracy.

Khamenei has also spoken of a cultural war being waged against the Islamic Republic and has, in the words of Ganji, for this reason allowed numerous intellectuals and creative artists to "be slaughtered outright".

Ganji also claims that critics of the regime abroad have also been assassinated. The suppression of student demonstrations and the imprisonment of numerous website operators and bloggers, he continues, are further indications of the flagrant abuse of human rights. "In our society, there is only one voice: the voice of the revolutionary leader; other voices have to remain silent," he writes.

Khamenei, writes Ganji, has unlimited power and is responsible for everything that happens in Iran; nevertheless no-one is allowed to criticise him for his decisions or hold him legally accountable for them. Ganji considers this to be a mockery of democracy, human rights, and social justice. Sixteen years of Khamenei's despotism, he says, are enough.

Ganji – determined to never give up

Ganji does not want to be a hero. "But should I bow to the demands of the judiciary and retract my opinions?" He goes on to say that when faced with the choice of being disloyal to himself or continuing his protest, he decided in favour of resistance. He stresses that he will never retract his "no" to the state and will never give up his fight for human rights and democracy.

What makes the whole situation absurd is that both the judiciary and the head of Milad hospital claim that Ganji is in full health and has never been on hunger strike. The reason, they claim, for his admission was a torn meniscus that requires an operation. "There are no problems with Ganji's health; he is eating normally and is doing very well," said Dr. Ali Fattahi, head of Milad hospital, when speaking to the IRNA news agency.

When asked what caused the torn meniscus, Fattahi said: "I don't know. These things are usually caused by sports." Fattahi passed no remarks on the widespread photos showing a completely emaciated and weakened Ganji lying in a solitary cell.

Teheran's most senior attorney general, Said Mortazawi, who is known and feared as a "newspaper and journalist killer", declared the storm in the national and international press about Ganji's supposed hunger strike to be nothing more than a "psychological war waged against the Islamic Republic" and controlled from abroad.

From hospital straight back to prison

"Our citizens know all about these methods; they will not pay any attention to such lies," said Mortazawi. He went on to say that Ganji will of course complete the remainder of his prison sentence once his hospital treatment is over.

After paying her husband a brief visit in hospital, Ganji's wife told the press that her husband is still on hunger strike, is much worse in hospital than he was in prison, and is in a coma. She says his life is in serious danger.

Political observers fear that Ganji will either be killed in hospital or will, like other dissidents before him, be forced to take medicine and psychiatric drugs under the influence of which he could be forced to denounce himself and make a confession against his will.

Bahman Nirumand

© 2005

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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