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From Jail, Iran Dissident Vows to Continue Fight

By Geneive Abdo
International Herald Tribune
January 23, 2001

TEHRAN The leading defendant in a case that set off an international outcry against Iran over harsh prison terms imposed for dissent said in his first interview from jail that conservatives in the judiciary will pay the price for dictatorship. Ganji reaction

Akbar Ganji, Iran's most prominent journalist, who began serving a 10-year sentence last week, said from his jail cell that the verdict would not silence him.

"I am an ideological prisoner and I am proud of that," said Mr. Ganji, responding to questions from the International Herald Tribune that were smuggled into Evin prison in Tehran.

"It is a great honor for a man to defend his ideas against dictators," he said. "Perhaps this sentence will satisfy their appetite for revenge. But in this case one must show sorrow and regret not for me but the for the whole of Iran's judicial apparatus," he said.

Mr. Ganji predicted that if the conservatives continued their strategy of obtaining power by force, violence would be the only means for ending their monopoly on power. "Future events may act as a detonator for an explosion," he said.

"Slowly and step by step, fascist interpretations of religion will lead to terrorist acts and other crimes which take place for the sole aim of shedding blood and demanding bloodshed in revenge."

Mr. Ganji received the harshest sentence among seven defendants convicted early this month on charges of trying to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The defendants - who included Ali Afshari, a student leader; Mehranguiz Kar, a feminist lawyer; Ezatollah Sahabi a newspaper editor, and two translators -were punished for participating in a seminar on Iran's reform movement held last year in Berlin.

It is not certain where Mr. Afshari is being held, according to students in the Office to Consolidate Unity, Iran's largest student organization, which he led. Officials have said he is in a detention center run by the Revolutionary Guards.

An influential cleric who attended the seminar was tried separately in a clerical court last year. He is believed to have been given the death penalty, but his sentence has not been made public.

Governments have reacted harshly to the verdicts, with Canada and Germany summoning Iran's ambassadors in their capitals. The punishments for participation in the Berlin conference appeared to contradict a policy of dialogue promoted by President Mohammed Khatami, who has encouraged an exchange of ideas between Iranians and Westerners.

A scheduled trip by Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, to Iran is now in question. German officials say the state visit, which had been scheduled for the spring, was merely postponed, but other diplomats said the action was taken because the German government was dismayed by the sentences.

International human rights organizations have sent open letters to top Iranian officials, saying the defendants were deprived of freedom of expression and should be freed. The verdicts are also being viewed by the West as a sign that Iran's fledgling reform movement may be gasping its last breath, now that leading activists are in prison and the conservative establishment appears determined to assert its power over the state.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, Mr. Ganji's cellmate, who was the dean of Iran's reformist press that was banned last spring, said the Berlin case was used to derail moves toward political development and free expression. "Public opinion knew from the start that the issue of the Berlin conference was changed into a tool to stand against Iran's reform movement," he said.

Mr. Shamsolvaezin was not a defendant in the Berlin case. He is serving a 30-month sentence for religious and political dissent on charges arising from the period when he was the editor of the newspaper Nishat.

Asked if their imprisonment was a sign that Iran's reform movement was effectively dead, the prisoners said they believed the movement could not be halted despite a series of setbacks, which includes the banning of 30 reformist newspapers and journals and the ousting last month of the minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance who was a symbol of press freedom and artistic liberalization.

"The loss of momentum for the reform movement can only take place when the people turn their backs on their demands, which are gaining freedom and liberty and participation in the political power structure," Mr. Shamsolvaezin said. "And the people of Iran are not turning their backs on these demands."


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