Testing limits of dissent in Iran

Iran's judiciary said Thursday it will not free Akbar Ganji, jailed after criticizing top officials.

Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji entered the 33rd day of his hunger strike Thursday, demanding unconditional release from the notorious Evin prison in north Tehran.

With only six months left in his sentence on a variety of charges after he wrote articles linking Iranian officials to the murders of intellectuals during the 1990s, Mr. Ganji's plight has gained the attention of human rights groups that say he's being mistreated and the Bush administration that called for his immediate release.

But the case is also cast by reformists and rights groups as an important bellwether for how incoming president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will handle freedom of the press issues in Iran, where more than 100 reform-minded publications have been closed by authorities in the past five years.

After being jailed in 2001, Ganji wrote "Manifesto of Republicanism," a stinging critique of the Iranian political system that calls for an end to clerical rule and greater democracy. Although his sentence was for six years, Ganji's wife has said authorities have made renouncing his political views a condition of release.

Human rights groups are now becoming concerned about the health of the journalist, who is reported to have lost 40 pounds subsisting entirely on liquids for the past month. Ganji began his protest after claiming he was denied medical attention, but has now pledged to fast until he is granted an unconditional release.

Iran's clerical judiciary said Thursday Ganji is receiving appropriate care and that he will not win early release. The case has long been a cause célèbre for Iranian journalists and rights groups.

Police on Tuesday violently dispersed a small demonstration, estimated between 100 to 300 protesters, in support of Ganji outside Tehran University. According to eyewitness reports, police beat a crowd of women with batons and a local Reuters reporter. The crowd had earlier raised placards and chanted slogans calling for Ganji's release.

Hashem Aghajari, a university lecturer whose death sentence for blasphemy was quashed last year, told journalists at the demonstration that, Ganji's "crime is only writing, and this is not a crime under any law."

Iranian journalists say they have been instructed by judiciary officials in recent days not to write about the Ganji case. Such attempts at censorship are routine in Iran, but journalists say they have become more common since the start of the election period and they expect the situation to worsen.

"There is clear censorship," says Issa Saharkhiz, a reformist journalist who has himself been briefly imprisoned for criticizing the regime. "Things will become worse now because extremists in the judiciary and among the new conservatives have more power, and they are pushing to control everything."

Newspaper closures have been constant during the reform era, as conservatives in the judiciary and other bodies strove to block the movement. Recently the focus has turned to the Internet, as increasing numbers of websites are blocked and bloggers are jailed.

The president elect, who takes office in early August, has pledged to defend press freedom but journalists remain skeptical. At his first press conference after the election, Mr. Ahmadinejad said he had promoted free speech as mayor of Tehran, prompting heckling from local journalists. He responded by saying: "I'd like to welcome criticism even when it comes in the form of shouting."

But as speculation mounts over the incoming president's choice of cabinet members, journalists are listening with mounting concern. Tehran prosecutor general, Saeed Mortazavi, has been cited as a possible justice minister in a leaked list. Mr. Mortazavi has ordered the closures of a number of publications and is alleged to have participated in the interrogation of journalists, including Zahra Kazemi, who died in custody in 2003.

In an interview during a brief period when he was out of jail for medical treatment, Ganji said he was prepared to stay in prison for the rest of his life for his beliefs. "Under the current regime I have no hope for any reform leading to a transition towards a democratic system."

Letter from Ganji

The following is excerpted from a letter by jailed Iranian Akbar Ganji.

"Islamic Prosecutor [Saeed Mortazavi] speaks openly of my death in prison. He told my wife: 'What if Ganji dies [in prison]? Dozens die in our jails every day; perhaps Ganji will be one of them.'

"What the Islamic prosecutor doesn't know is that Ganji may die, but the love of freedom, and the thirst for political justice will never die. Ganji may die, but humanism and the love of one's fellow man, and the hope and expectations for a better future, will never die.

"I will spend my time in solitary, but my heart will continue to beat for freedom. And some of the time I will hear prisoners cry for the windows of their solitary cells to be opened, to let the sun in."

Source: The Middle East Media Research Institute (www.memri.org/).

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