Row over Iran dissident escalates on day 50 of hunger strike
Iran's highest profile political prisoner, journalist Akbar Ganji, and the hardline judiciary escalated on the 50th day of his hunger strike, with fears he may not live much longer.
In a further sign of tension, Abdolfattah Soltani, one of the lawyers representing Ganji and a colleague of Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, was arrested. It was not clear if his detention was related to the Ganji case.
"Ganji's situation is very critical and it is possible that these are his last days of life," his wife Massoumeh Shafiie said after visiting the dissident journalist in his Tehran hospital on Friday.
But she said there was no question of Ganji applying for a pardon, while the judiciary warned that he had put his case at risk after publishing more criticism of the regime.
Shafiie said Ganji's weight has fallen to 50 kilograms (110 pounds) and that he was faint during her last visit.
Ganji, 46, was sentenced in 2001 to six years in prison after he wrote articles implicating several regime officials in the murders of opposition intellectuals and writers and launched a protest hunger strike last month.
He was transferred last week from his Tehran prison to a hospital, fueling concerns about his health although the judiciary said he simply needed a knee operation and had ended his hunger strike.
Ganji has been on hunger strike for 50 days in protest at his conditions of detention and is demanding his unconditional release but the judiciary is demanding that he makes a direct application for his sentence to be reconsidered.
Despite widespread appeals for Ganji's release, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmood Hashemi Shahrudi said he had damaged his case by issuing statements critical of the Islamic regime while he had been granted leave from prison.
"He wrote another manifest during his leave and made comments that deprive him of his right and even some of his words are criminal," Shahrudi was quoted as saying by the student news agency ISNA.
He said Ganji's latest comments had "hardened his situation from the judicial point of view."
Soltani was arrested while he was holding a sit-in protest at the Tehran bar building. A group of men appeared and "put him into a car and took him away," his fellow lawyer Mohammad Sharif told the student agency ISNA.
On Wednesday, judiciary agents with an arrest warrant searched Soltani's house and seized documents, personal belongings and passport.
He had told AFP before his arrest that he was holding the protest to demonstrate "against the manoeuvres of intimidation aimed at discouraging lawyers from working in political cases." READ MORE
"I will continue my action until the chief justice intervenes and ends the actions of Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazvari that are aimed at stirring up the crisis," he added.
In addition to Ganji, Soltani represents the family of murdered Iranian-Canadian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, who died in custody in July 2003 from a cerebral haemmorrhage 10 days after being arrested for photographing a demonstration outside a Tehran prison.
The group of rights lawyers fronted by Ebadi appears to be increasingly locked in a struggle with Iran's ultra-conservative judiciary, with the hardline press accusing the Nobel Peace Prize winner of inciting Ganji to continue his hunger strike.
"We have the impression that with these methods the Tehran judiciary is attempting to sap the courage of the lawyers," Ebadi told AFP.
"If lawyers are treated in this way then nobody will want to defend those accused of political and ideological crimes."