Thursday, March 16, 2006

Ganji Faces New Charges, Imprisonment Past His Release Date

Eli Lake, The New York Sun:
Despite the pending expiration of Akbar Ganji's original sentence, the Iranian press is reporting that the opposition leader and dissident will remain in Evin Prison after his scheduled release date tomorrow.

This week the Fars News Agency reported that the judiciary has already decided that Mr. Ganji must stay in prison because he is likely to face additional charges. Another Web site with the same name as the American-funded radio station, Farda, reported on Monday that Mr. Ganji would not be freed as well. Both sites are closely linked to the most conservative elements of Iran's ruling clerics. READ MORE

The fate of Mr. Ganji is vital to the health of Iran's liberal opposition. In prison he drafted a two-part manifesto calling for a change in the Islamic Republic's constitution to allow elections of the supreme leader. He also has advocated nonviolent resistance as the best method to change the regime. In an open letter to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, smuggled out of his jail in July, Mr. Ganji directly told him to leave power in nearly identical language to Ayatollah Khomeinei's warnings to the shah in 1978.

This summer, the European Union, President Bush and eventually the U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan all called on the supreme leader to release Mr. Ganji during his hunger strike.

The editor of the American Radio Farda, Ali Sajjadi, yesterday said he was pessimistic about the fate of Mr. Ganji. "Usually if they want to let someone go they give them a brief vacation, especially for people in jail for more than one year," he said. "They let them go for the weekend. It did not apply to Ganji. They have not let his family routinely visit him."

Mr. Ganji was first arrested in 2000 for attending a reform conference in Berlin and later in 2001 for defaming the government. His lawyer, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, has called into question nearly every aspect of his trial. In 2001, he was sentenced to six years in prison for publishing a book that accused, among others, a former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, of orchestrating the killing of intellectuals in the late 1990s known as the "chain murders." He was released to receive medical attention last May, but quickly granted an interview to Rooz Online, urging his fellow citizens not to vote in the presidential elections.

A former student representative to former President Khatemi's Reform Party, Ali Afshari, yesterday said Mr. Ganji poses too great a threat to the Islamic Republic. "Because of Ganji's position toward the supreme leader, it will have tremendous consequences for the regime. We may see excuses or delays in the future. If he is released in the eyes of the public, it would be a major setback for the Islamic Republic. There is a good chance there will be a public reception for him when he is released," he said.

Mr. Afshari left Iran in October for a brief stint at the University of Dublin. He came to America last month and has testified before the Senate on the state of Iran's democratic opposition. Mr. Afshari was also a leader of Iran's largest student organization, Tahkim Vahdat, which has held demonstrations in the last year to free Mr. Ganji.

At the same time Mr. Afshari said he thinks there may be a sliver of hope. "Since there is tremendous pressure on human rights in Iran now, this could counter some balance in the regime. They may want to do something like release him under certain conditions," he said. Earlier this month, Mr. Ganji's lawyer, Abdolfattah Soltani, was released from Evin Prison after his supporters signed the deed of a property over to the regime to meet his bail.

But the recent release of some political prisoners may be part of an insidious design. Mr. Soltani and Emad Baghi spoke with the Washington Post's reporter in Tehran to disparage the Bush administration's proposal to aid the opposition in Iran. Mr. Baghi gave the interview after his wife and daughter were arrested, ostensibly for attending a seminar in Dubai sponsored by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, which receives no money from any government, corporation, or foundation. An organizer of that conference, Ramin Ahmadi, told The New York Sun earlier this week that the regime is pressuring these activists to disparage the projects to western reporters.