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Ganji warns of political explosion

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji, who recently received a 10-year jail sentence for dissent, warned on Monday of a political explosion unless conservatives eased pressure on the reform movement. Ganji reaction

In his first interview since his conviction with six other activists earlier this month, Ganji said he was honoured to stand up for his ideals in the face of what he called dictatorship and religious intolerance.

A Revolutionary Court sentenced Ganji for his part in a Berlin conference on reform in Iran, which prosecutors said undermined national security.

His sentence drew international condemnation and a planned visit by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to Iran is now in question. Tehran responded by decrying what it called interference in its internal affairs.

"I am a prisoner of conscience cum political prisoner, and it is a great honour for a man to defend his ideas against dictators," Ganji said in written responses from Tehran's Evin prison to questions from Reuters, relayed by an intermediary.

"Slowly, step by step, the fascist interpretation of religion will lead to terrorist acts and other crimes which take place with the sole aim of shedding blood and demanding blood in return.

"Future events may act as the detonator for an explosion" unless the conservative establishment eased the pressure on President Mohammad Khatami and the broader reform movement.


The Revolutionary Court sentenced Ganji to four years in jail for his part in the Berlin conference, four more for possessing a confidential government bulletin, 18 months for insulting the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini and six months for spreading propaganda against Iran's Islamic system.

Six others received lesser jail terms or fines.

The Heinrich Boell Foundation organised the conference, which was hijacked by banned exile opposition groups in a bid to discredit the Iranian reform movement.

Videos of the conference, replayed endlessly on state television, showed a woman in short sleeves dancing -- an affront to Iran's strict social mores.

Ganji, a veteran revolutionary, had already drawn the wrath of hardliners for alleging complicity among senior clerics and state officials in the "mystery murders" of secular dissidents.

He shares a cell with three other well-known reformists.

The four cellmates, including Mashallah Shamsolvaezin -- the dean of the now-banned reformist press -- represent a cross- section of the movement that first grouped behind Khatami ahead of his May 1997 electoral landslide.

Emaddedin Baqi, a theology student turned crusading journalist, and Latif Safari, a former parliamentarian and pro-reform newspaper publisher, also share their cell, equipped with a desk, four beds, a refrigerator and television.

The dismantling of the free press last year by the judiciary and the jailing of its leading lights -- such as Ganji and his cellmates -- marked the beginning of a steady decline in the fortunes of Khatami and his campaign for change.


"When we talk about the reform movement, then (the word) 'stopping' is meaningless," said Shamsolvaezin, once editor and co-founder of the groundbreaking daily Jameah.

"A loss of momentum in the reform movement can only take place when the people turn their backs on their demands -- to gain freedom and liberty and to take part in the political power structure," he wrote from his prison compound.

"The people of Iran are not turning their backs on these demands."

Asked if he held out any hope for the appeals process, Ganji said it was unclear whether the higher court was truly independent of the judiciary's hardline forces.

He said real hope lay with the court of public opinion, particularly in next June's presidential elections.

"I have prepared myself to endure whatever comes my way," said Ganji, a former ideologue in the elite Revolutionary Guards.

"Iran's upheavals cannot be resolved by an isolated act, but a large popular turnout in the up-coming elections, with a majority vote for the reformists, will prove that the conservatives have no popular mandate," he said.


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