Iran's killing machine
Ganji speaks out against his tormentors
December 7, 2000
IN A bid to salvage his reformist reputation, and prepare himself for
next spring's presidential election, President Muhammad Khatami has admitted
that he lacks the powers to implement Iran's surprisingly democratic constitution
-but blames this failure on the punishing strength of the conservative
forces ranged against him. Most frustrating of all is Iran's hardline judiciary,
which stands solidly in the way of greater freedom of expression. The courts
have shut down free-speaking newspapers and imprisoned brave journalists.
But now one of the bravest journalists, Akbar Ganji, has struck back, hitting
at hardliners with painful, public accusations. Photo
Mr Ganji has made it his business to investigate the murder of four
dissident intellectuals who were killed by agents of Iran's intelligence
ministry at the end of 1998. At the time of these crimes, Mr Ganji was
little known outside a coterie of reformist writers and political activists
who met to discuss ways of making the theocratic regime more democratic.
But his journalistic pursuit of the murderers made him the country's most
celebrated libertarian. It also alarmed those conservative clerics, judges
and politicians whom he accused of knowing more about the killings than
they let on. In April Mr Ganji was arrested, and later charged with his
part in a controversial conference in Germany, and the stream of revelations
But on November 30th, when Mr Ganji was in court to deny that he had
undermined the state and its institutions, the revelations started to flow
again, ever more powerfully. Some of the things he said were pretty well
known already. Mr Ganji had already dropped hints in his newspaper columns
that the "master key" who had issued the orders for the murders
was Ali Fallahian, the intelligence minister from 1989 to 1997. This time
he identified Mr Fallahian directly. He also attacked Ayatollah Muhammad
Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, a prominent conservative cleric, for his public endorsement
of the extra-judicial execution of people identified as apostates by senior
clerics. This too was not entirely new.
What stunned, and thrilled, many Iranians was that Mr Ganji dared to
accuse Mohseni Ejei, one of Iran's most powerful judges, of ordering the
assassination of Pirouz Davani, a Marxist who mysteriously disappeared
shortly before the four murders took place. This accusation is crucial.
Mr Ejei is head of Iran's special clerical court, and also the senior man
dealing with press offences. Even more important, Mr Ganji's public accusation
brings into the open all the other suspected "serial" murders
of active reformists and other free-thinkers.
Mr Khatami was successful in getting the intelligence ministry to admit
that it was its agents who killed the four dissidents in 1998. But, since
then, the president has appeared to lose interest in the case. It fell
to Mr Ganji and like-minded activists to demand that the subsequent judicial
inquiry be broadened to include around 80 more killings, most of them allegedly
committed during the tenure of Mr Khatami's predecessor, Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani. Unless they can convincingly refute this, and Mr Ganji's claim
that Mr Ejei signed a sentence of death against Mr Davani, the credibility
of Iran's conservative judges will be severely cracked.
The judges may prefer lack of credibility to open debate. Bearing in
mind the judiciary's performance to date, it would be unwise to expect
a flurry of investigations. Take the case against the people suspected
of involvement in the murder of the four. A case file has been prepared
in connection with 18 people, including intelligence ministry employees,
whose trial is due to start later this month. According to Nasser Zarafshan,
a lawyer who represents the families of two of the deceased, this file
contains confessions to several other murders. But the case has not been
enlarged to take account of these confessions, as Iranian law says it should
be. Nor, apparently, is there any mention in the file of Saeed Emami, the
most senior ministry official to be arrested, who "committed suicide"
in jail last year. Mr Ganji's revelations will probably be tested only
if Mr Fallahian or Mr Ejei decide to sue him.
It is much more likely that they, and their colleagues, will decide
to silence him with a lengthy prison sentence. Judges have already jailed
one investigative journalist, and a prominent reformist cleric, for comments
they made about the murders. On the same day that Mr Ganji was making his
accusations, the intelligence ministry announced the arrest of several
people charged with distributing an anonymous tract on the killings.
Last week, Saeed Hajarian, a presidential adviser and former intelligence
official, was charged with "spreading lies", after he referred
in an interview to the existence of a "killing machine" that
had been set in motion before Mr Khatami's election. Mr Hajarian and Mr
Ganji are old friends. It was Mr Hajarian who gave the journalist a column
in Sobh-e Emruz, his now-banned newspaper, in which Mr Ganji released many
of his most damning revelations. In March an Islamic extremist, who has
since been jailed, tried to kill Mr Hararian, leaving him confined to a
wheelchair. Mr Ganji has taken note. "I am not", he told the
court on December 2nd, "the type to commit suicide in jail."