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Iran Arrests Outspoken Journalist
Writer Linked Government to Killings of Reform Activists

The Washington Post
April 23, 2000, Sunday

TEHRAN, April 22 An Iranian journalist who has written explosive reports linking government officials to the killings of dissidents and writers was arrested today in court, where he had been summoned to answer charges that his articles violated the country's press laws. Related satire here

Through his newspaper column and a best-selling book, Akbar Ganji, 40, has become both a national hero and a marked man. He has shocked readers with his boldness, referring regularly to Iran's powerful conservative Muslim clerics as "religious fascists" and reaching far beyond the newly expanded red lines of Iran's media.

Much of Ganji's work has focused on the 1998 killings of five pro-reform dissidents; Ganji has suggested that a shadowy clique of government officials known as the "Gray Monsignors" issued those death orders, and perhaps are responsible for as many as 80 killings since the late 1980s. He has repeatedly called on those behind the killings to come forward.

"This is the price I have to pay to pursue the case of the murders," Ganji told reporters as he headed into court. "But the future is bright. No one created the reforms and nobody can stop them."

Ganji is just the latest reformist journalist summoned to court in recent weeks, as the Islamic hard-liners who control the country's judiciary have been stepping up investigations of the media in the wake of the reformists' overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections in February. Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently condemned the reformist press as "enemies" of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But to the country's avid newspaper readers, frustrated by years of conservative political and economic mismanagement, Ganji is a celebrity. His fans eagerly await his latest missives and he is often mobbed by well-wishers on the streets.

Ganji, who sees himself as a deeply religious man, said in an interview last week that he fears Iran's conservatives have transformed Islam into "a semi-totalitarian political ideology," a view held by many of Iran's leading reformists but rarely articulated with such audacity.

Anti-reform conservatives have called Ganji a traitor, and he said he has received death threats. But Ganji, a former member of Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guard military corps, said he is undeterred.

"Democratization has costs that I am willing to bear. . . . I am simply seeking the truth so we can eliminate the use of politically inspired violence in our society."

The threat of violence here is real. Saeed Hajjarian, another outspoken pro-democracy reformist and top political adviser to President Mohammed Khatemi, was shot at close range one month ago. He is recovering in a Tehran hospital.

"The night before Hajjarian's shooting, I met with him and he told me to watch out," Ganji said. "He thought they were going to get me."

The "they" Ganji refers to is murky. Deep within Iran's internal security organs, Ganji alleges, there is a group of hard-liners willing to kill based on orders from shadowy Gray Monsignors, conservative clerics linked to state bodies. This group, Ganji contends, was responsible for the killings of Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar, a husband-and-wife dissident team, and three writers.

After the high-profile 1998 killings, a government investigation fingered a former senior intelligence official, Saeed Emami, as responsible for the killings of the dissidents. Emami was arrested, a development regarded as a victory for reformists.

Before Emami could be tried, however, he committed suicide under mysterious circumstances, leaving many questions unanswered--questions that gnaw at Ganji and other reformists.

"I think we need to look above Emami, to see who gave the orders. When these people are arrested, then it will, hopefully, prevent similar crimes," Ganji said. "If we fail to pursue this case, such heinous acts might be repeated."

Ganji said he has a good idea of the identities of the Gray Monsignors, but publishing them could lead to serious libel issues under Iran's press laws, unless he came up with unimpeachable evidence.

After his arrest today, Ganji was taken to Tehran's Evin prison, court sources said. In 1997, Ganji spent two months behind bars for giving a speech in which he implicated Iran's conservative clerics as "fascists."

Despite the dark nature of his investigations, Ganji is optimistic about Iran's future. He said he believes fervently in the country's democratic movement and sees no contradiction between Islam and his goals of political pluralism, freedom, human rights and civil society.

"We have no choice but to move in the direction of democracy," he said. "This movement is good for the country and good for our future. I only hope we can do it peacefully."

Special correspondent Afshin Molavi contributed to this report.


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