Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji was arrested in Tehran in April 2000
and, after a series of trials, was sentenced to six years in prison
for his political writings, for allegedly spreading propaganda
against the Islamic Republic, and for collecting confidential
information harmful to national security. By now he has been in
prison for nearly five years, part of the time in solitary
confinement; the judicial authorities have suggested that more
charges against Ganji for his various writings are pending. On July
18, on the thirty-eighth day of a hunger strike to protest his
incarceration, Ganji, who had become gravely ill, was transferred
from Evin Prison to a hospital. On August 22, he confirmed that he
had broken his hunger strike.
a young revolutionary in 1979, initially worked as an editor of
publications circulated within the Ministry of Culture and Islamic
Guidance. But in the 1990s, he became involved with reform journals.
He was a member of the editorial board of the monthly Kiyan,
Iran's principal intellectual journal, before it was shut down by
the authorities in 2000. Kiyan put forward to its educated
readership the powerful ideas that fueled the reform movement that
sprang up in the mid-1990s. In essays by Ganji and others it
discussed the need in Iran for civil society, individual rights, the
rule of law, and government answerable to the people. Kiyan
also featured the essays of Abdolkarim Soroush, perhaps the most
influential religious reformist thinker of his generation, who has
argued for an approach to Islam that emphasizes pluralism, critical
inquiry, and individual rights.
Ganji was also associated with several of the reformist newspapers
that flourished during Mohammad Khatami's first term as president
between 1997 and 2001. In April 2000, Iran's supreme leader, Ali
Khamenei, charged that such newspapers had become "bases of the
enemy" and were serving the aims of "enemy agents." During the
crackdown on the press that followed, more than one hundred
publications were forced to close. Ganji was one of a number of
journalists and intellectuals arrested, tried, and jailed as a
result. But Ganji was given the longest and harshest prison term,
principally, it is believed, because of a series of articles by him
in the newspapers Sobh-e Emruz and 'Asr-e Azadegan
that indirectly implicated senior officials and clerics, as well as
officials in the Ministry of Intelligence and other security
agencies, in the "serial murders" of prominent intellectuals and
He also hinted at their complicity in the attempt on the life of
Sa'id Hajjarian, Khatami's principal political adviser, and earlier
murders of writers and opposition political figures. Ganji accused
clerics of issuing fatwas, or religious decrees, sanctioning
these killings. He wrote of "gray eminences" who, behind closed
doors, agreed on eliminating intellectuals and opposition figures.
Ganji seemed to concentrate his criticism on Ali-Akbar
Hashemi-Rafsanjani, during whose presidency the first series of
murders had taken place. In these writings Ganji had obviously gone
on a hunger strike in prison, Ganji issued a number of statements,
including two letters "to the Free People of the World." In these,
he criticized the violations of individual rights in the Islamic
Republic and laid out an argument for civil disobedience aimed at
challenging the legitimacy of the regime. Central to his argument is
that intellectuals have a duty to speak out and to serve as
examples. He cited the example of Socrates, and repeated a question
posed by Milan Kundera: "Is it better to cry out and hasten our
death or to keep our silence and drag out our slow and gradual
Ganji also issued two parts of what he describes as A Republican
Manifesto, in which he uses the term "republic" in the
traditional sense to refer to a political system based on the will
of the people, which he contrasts with the political system
prevailing in Iran. Iran has an elected president and parliament,
but ultimate authority is vested in the supreme religious leader who
wields vast powers and, once selected, holds his position for life.
Ganji condemns this system, known under the Iranian constitution as
"the vice-regency of the Islamic jurist," as a form of "sultanism"
in which the ruler usurps the rights of the people.
Ganji wrote from prison an open letter to his former teacher
Soroush. The letter appeared after he was transferred to a hospital
in July and it is striking for several reasons. It is a sharp and
direct attack on the personal record of Khamenei as Iran's leader—a
form of criticism that most Iranian dissidents have avoided. Ganji
holds Khamenei directly responsible for the many violations of law
and human rights of the last decade—the incarceration and
assassination of dissidents, the suppression of newspapers, the
tampering with elections, the subservience of the judiciary to the
state, and the widespread official corruption. "Khamenei must go,"
as he writes, is a principal theme of his letter.
Ganji differs here with many of his reformist friends. The reform
movement that took shape under Khatami held that democracy and
individual rights could still be achieved under Iran's current
constitution, notwithstanding the extensive powers vested in the
supreme leader. Ganji challenges that view. He does not advocate
revolution, but he calls for elimination of the office of the
supreme leader and a fully republican form of government.
Following are excerpts from Ganji's letter to Soroush:
Professor Abdolkarim Soroush:
received your compassionate and caring letter of July 12, 2005. The
story of our relationship goes back to the beginning of the
revolution: to your classes on the introduction to philosophy, the
philosophy of science, morals, origin and return,
transubstantiation; to our private, one-on-one sessions when I asked
endless questions and you generously replied to them.
Beginning in 1979, a friendship began between us which never ended.
Our generation is greatly indebted to you. Through you we became
familiar with modernity and different approaches to religion and the
idea of the righteous man. With you, we explored new worlds, and you
cleansed our eyes so that we saw in a different way. It was not
merely a question of analytical philosophy and critical reasoning.
With Rumi and Hafez, you lighted a fire in our beings which will
never be extinguished.
Can one come to know Rumi's spiritual awakening and not flee the
fundamentalism of the deceivers? The Hafez who criticized the false
piety and hypocrisy of the shaykhs [the clergy] gave us due warning.
Hafez told us, "The preachers busy themselves with other things in
private." Since they do not believe in the Day of Judgment, as
judges, they cheat and deceive. They hide their fornication behind
their clerical robes. They open the door to the house of deception
and lies. Tainted in every way, they claim to be innocent. They are
know-nothings but claim deep knowledge. They break agreements.
Hafez's critique of the clerical community and its pestilence is
Hafez's critique must be brought to completion. He had no experience
or knowledge of totalitarian societies and fascist movements, which
came into being later. A totalitarian system and a repressive system
mean fear and terror. It is a society with one voice, in which only
the voice of the leader is heard. Where civil society is completely
crushed, and the state does not recognize a private sphere, the
leader has the status of a god; and the people must be made to fear
this wretched person, himself afraid and fearful of others.
autocratic leader sees everyone as an enemy. Yesterday's friends are
for him tomorrow's enemies. Even the death of rivals does not put
his mind at ease. Their memory and names must be erased from history
and memory. Wherever the people go and wherever they look, they must
see the leader. We are face to face with a manic desire to create
such a system. Since Hafez is no longer with us to criticize this
aspiration in his poetry, others must portray this mania and
mercilessly criticize it.
slaughter of intellectuals and dissidents and the suppression of
newspapers and the imprisonment of journalists; the physical and
verbal attacks on university professors; the use of batons and brass
knuckles against people who attend meetings calling for
democracy—these reflected not merely a wish and aspiration. These
were the essence of that aspiration, whose logical conclusion is
fascism and part of the heritage of Nazism, inherited by Iranian
fascists. The solitary confinement of dissidents and their torture
to secure confessions for crimes they did not commit were copied
from the practices of Stalin. Stalinism itself is defined by the
solitary cell and forcing people to destroy themselves to please the
Khamenei considered the media the base of the enemy, and the
intellectuals the agents of the enemy's cultural assault on the
regime; therefore, some intellectuals were slaughtered and
assassinated, some were imprisoned, a number were tortured, some
were verbally and physically assaulted in city squares, and still
others were eliminated in other ways. Through these methods not only
were the views of Mr. Khamenei to be realized but it was also
necessary that the phantom enemies—the products of Mr. Khamenei's
will certainly recall what an uproar was created when the regime
announced that a major spy affair had been uncovered [in the opinion
[Sa'id] Mortazavi created "spies" through torture and the
falsification of documents because Mr. Khamenei wished there to be
[foreign] spies among the reformers, since he considered the
The slogans of social justice and fighting economic corruption are
used to give free rein to agents of tyranny and exploitation, and to
fill their pockets.
astonishes me that Mr. Khamenei speaks of Iran as the most free and
democratic country in the region. What freedom does he speak of when
dissidents are denied the right to life? If it is not possible to
criticize the political leader of the country, one cannot claim that
freedom of speech exists. If a person is required to pay a heavy
price for indirectly criticizing the leader, this is not freedom; it
is, rather, a totalitarian form of autocracy. In June 1997, I
lectured at Shiraz University on the theoretical foundations of
fascism. I did not think anyone would object. But I was surprised to
find that the revolutionary court convicted me of insulting the
Iranian Leader—instead of Hitler and Mussolini—and sentenced me to
one year in jail. When criticism of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin is
considered criticism of the Leader, how can claims be made for
freedom of speech and democracy?
Even more interesting are Mr. Khamenei's claims regarding popular
sovereignty. What are reasonable men and women to think when one
person has absolute power for life and still speaks of the popular
base of his government? Mr. Khamenei might answer just one question:
How would it be possible through peaceful means to remove him from
power? How can one discuss removing him from power and yet avoid
being butchered? Mr. Khamenei used to say that if the Leader does
not reply to a question or to an interpellation [an open challenge
in Parliament], he automatically loses office. Let us ignore all the
previous [unanswered] questions that have been addressed to
Khamenei. I aim at removing him from the political leadership of the
country. How can I achieve this goal through peaceful means? Mr.
Khamenei must give a clear answer.
Even if I overlooked my two thousand days in prison, I cannot
overlook the extensive violation of human rights by Mr. Khamenei, an
autocratic, sultanic government, widespread official corruption, the
assassination of opponents, and a thousand other things.
Khamenei must go since he can tolerate no one else. Khamenei must go
because the serial murders took place during his period in office.
He must go because more than one hundred publications were closed
down and journalists imprisoned at his direct orders. He must go
because in the elections for the seventh Majlis and the last
presidential elections he unjustly eliminated the opposition and
advanced his own disciples. He must go because he created by his
actions millions of Iranian refugees throughout the world and does
not acknowledge that Iran belongs to all Iranians. He must go
because hundreds of university professors in Iran, like Dr. Soroush,
cannot teach or work, and instead of teaching and training young
Iranians they must teach the young of other countries. Khamenei must
go because he gave authority both to those in charge of the killing
of prisoners in the summer of 1988
and to those who ordered the murders of dissidents.
greatly regret that there are some who believe that it is possible
to deal with a sultanic system by using cautious statements on
democracy and liberty and still arrive at a democratic system.
Montesquieu's wise observation must never be forgotten: that power
can only be limited by power. Only with the mobilization of society
and the formation of a democratic and human rights front through
civil disobedience is it possible to stand up to a sultanic system.
have always believed in God's mercy, and I know He always looks
compassionately on his servants. I miss you a great deal. If only it
would be my good fortune to see you under these conditions, to hear
you speak of Rumi, and to have you take me with you into his
am certain that this night of darkness will not last. The moon of
freedom will emerge from behind the clouds of religious tyranny and
shower us all with joy.
Saturday, July 23, 2005, on the forty-third day of his hunger strike
 In November 1998, the opposition political activist
Dariush Foruhar and his wife were found brutally murdered in their
apartment and three prominent dissident writers were killed and
their bodies left in various parts of Tehran. These came to be known
as the "serial murders." Under pressure from the reformist press and
President Khatami, the Ministry of Intelligence later admitted its
own agents were responsible for the killings, although it claimed
this was a rogue operation. These killings followed the death in
1994 of the respected writer-satirist Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani while
in police custody and the killing of several other prominent writers
in the following two years.
 Rumi (circa 1207–1273) and Hafez (circa 1320–1389) are
much-loved Iranian poets whose writing is strongly tinged with
mysticism. Hafez's verse is full of critical references to the
 In late 2002, two poll-takers, Abbas Abdi and Hossein
Ghazian, associated with Ayandeh, a public-opinion research
organization, reported that a majority of Iranians polled favored
relations with the US. The poll was carried out, in part, on behalf
of the Gallup Organization. After being tried on charges of "passing
information to enemy countries" and spreading "propaganda against
the Islamic Republic," they were sentenced to over four years in
 Sa'id Mortazavi is the notorious judge and Tehran
public prosecutor who was involved in the sentencing of many
prominent journalists and intellectuals. In 2003, he was the
interrogator of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist,
who died from a blow to the head she received under questioning.
 In the last stages of the Iran–Iraq war in the summer
of 1988, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an opposition group based in Iraq
and associated with Saddam Hussein, staged a major military
incursion into Iran. The government retaliated by putting to death
between 1,000 and 1,700 members of the Mujahedin and other left-wing
organizations held in Iranian jails.