On August 4th the new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn in, replacing Mohammad Khatami. The eight-year reformist control of the administrative branch in Iran has come to an end. In a slow move the hardliners took over the legislative branch a year and a half ago and with this change in presidency they will control all three branches of the government in addition to all the powers that are vested in the unelected supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A quarter century after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the new president won the elections with the promise to reverse all the moderate and West-leaning social and economic policies of the past sixteen years. This in effect means that he is going back to the revolutionary sentiments of the early 80s when Iran was in the middle of an eight-year bloody war with Iraq.
Ahmadinejad, himself a revolutionary guard commander with a civil engineering Ph.D., has been the mayor of Tehran for the past two years. He belongs to a faction of the power structure that comes from a military and intelligence background. While the world is seriously cautious about Iran's nuclear ambitions, this change in power balance promises a darker stage in contemporary Iranian history.
What I am writing today, however, is not exactly about the new president. It is about a soul in danger of disappearing and a light close to dying.
Mr. Akbar Ganji, an Iranian investigative journalist and a prominent advocate of human rights and civil society has been in prison for more than five years. Mr. Ganji was arrested on April 22, 2000 following his participation in an academic and cultural conference held at the Heinrich Böll Institute in Berlin, April 7-9, 2000. He was sentenced on January, 2001 to 10 years imprisonment plus five years internal exile.
Then, on July 16, 2001, Ganji was sentenced by an appeal court to six years in prison on vaguely worded charges of collecting confidential information that harms national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic regime by attending the Berlin Conference. In fact, it appears that major reason for Ganji's imprisonment is a series of articles he has written as an investigative journalist implicating leading Iranian government figures in the murders of several dissident writers and intellectuals in the 1990s.
It is with astonishment to know that a person, who has served his country, has devoted his life to the improvement of civil society and has come to be known as one of the most vocal and respected journalists of his time should be treated in this way.
Mr. Ganji is an honorable member of PEN Canada and continues his work and writing even from inside the prison wards and now from hospital quarantine. Ganji is one of the Iranian government's most forceful critics. In his writings, he has criticized Iran's system of governance.
In a letter smuggled out of jail last week, Ganji held Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, directly responsible for his persecution and possible death. According to his wife, the judicial authorities have pressured him to “repent” for his writings as a condition for his release.
Ganji has served nearly five-and-a-half years of his six-year sentence while most prisoners in Iran are eligible for pardon after serving half of their sentence. He suffers from acute asthma that he developed in prison. The Iranian authorities have repeatedly prevented Ganji from receiving specialist medical care or taking medical leave like other prisoners are permitted.
In protest of his unfair treatment, Ganji began a hunger strike almost two months ago, and has since sustained himself only on liquids. As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch wrote, “It is a serious contravention of the most basic humanitarian standards, and the international community should strongly condemn it.”
Unfortunately all efforts to resolve this issue have failed, President Bush, Senator Joseph Biden, the European Union, Amnesty International, Archbishop Desmund Tutu, five other Noble Laureates, and many other international figures have appealed for his release without any response from the Iranian judiciary which is another stronghold of the unelected supreme leader.
Akbar Ganji is suffering tremendously from 57 days of hunger strike, has lost more than one third of his weight and his health situation puts him in grave danger. As a freelance journalist myself, I and a group of other concerned citizens in Portland, I have started a limited hunger strike as of Friday afternoon in the South Park Blocks in front of the Portland State University's library, as the sacred place of Book and Pen, in honor of Akbar Ganji and in solidarity with his wife and children who are going to be sitting in front of the United Nations' office in Tehran at the same time.
PLEASE light a candle for all prisoners of conscience!
Goudarz Eghtedari, Ph.D., is a Human Rights and Peace activist, a community organizer, a writer, and producer of the Voices of the Middle East program on KBOO 90.7 fm (VoicesOfTheMiddleEast.com). He has served on the boards of the Oregon Peace Institute and the Iranian Human Rights Group, and is a member of the Iranian Studies Advisory Board at Portland State University.