July 19, 2005

Iranian Dissident Rushed to Hospital BY ELI LAKE,Staff Reporter of the Sun July 19, 2005

WASHINGTON - With his health failing and his family barred from visiting him, officials at Iran's Evin prison sent political prisoner Akbar Ganji to Tehran's Milad hospital, a decision seen by his supporters yesterday as a last-ditch effort to save the dissident journalist's life. Mr. Ganji has ingested only sugar cubes and water as part of a hunger strike begun when he was rearrested on June 11 for urging a boycott of last month's presidential elections.

A hospital spokesman told Iranian reporters that Mr. Ganji had been admitted for routine knee surgery.

Mr. Ganji has emerged as a symbol of democratic opposition in Iran. He has spoken out against leaders in the regime, charging them with masterminding the murders of dissidents and intellectuals, and has called for change in his country's political process. His writings have made him a hero to the Iranian opposition - but they have also landed him at Evin. President Bush, E.U. representatives, and human rights organizations have called on the Islamic republic to release Mr. Ganji in the past week.

"I think he is in serious condition," a former Iranian political prisoner currently in America, Mohsen Sazegara, told The New York Sun yesterday. Mr. Sazegara has personal experience with hunger strikes: He launched his own on June 15, 2003, after being arrested during a crackdown on student demonstrations. A month later, Mr. Sazegara was taken to Baghyatallah hospital, where he was hooked up to an intravenous feeding tube.

In an interview yesterday, he described the progressive physical deterioration brought on by a hunger strike. "In the first 15 days, you lose all the fats, then the body loses all the proteins and your muscles will be burned," he said. "My gums in my mouth began receding and I had an ache in my teeth. You start to lose your muscles, you lose hair because of the deficiency. Finally your eyes start to go."

In an interview with the reformist online magazine that first quoted Mr. Ganji as saying Iranians ought to boycott the presidential election, Emrooz, the dissident's wife, Massoumeh Shafieh, confirmed that her husband had been taken to Milad Hospital. She said that she learned this through "unofficial sources," and has yet to see her husband, whose health she believes is failing. The Sun yesterday published an interview with a former prison mate of Mr. Ganji, Amir Abbas Fakhravar, who said he heard from eyewitnesses from within Evin prison that Mr. Ganji was unable to walk.

In the Emrooz interview, Ms. Shafieh said her husband would reject an offer by the outgoing president, Mohammed Khatemi, who reportedly suggested Mr. Ganji would be released from prison if he signed a statement confessing his guilt.

"No, this is not right and not correct legally since this is his second time in prison," Ms. Shafieh said. "Ganji thinks if he gets out conditionally, that means he admits to a guilt." Emrooz yesterday ran a story saying that negotiations were under way for Mr. Ganji to serve out his remaining prison sentence at the hospital instead of at Evin.

Ms. Shafieh said yesterday that she optimistically believes that the regime will not let her husband die, even though he has threatened to starve himself to death if he is not released unconditionally from prison.

"It is not to their advantage if something happens to Ganji," Emrooz quoted her as saying. Mr. Fakhravar told the Sun, "The minute Akbar Ganji dies, you will see what a revolution looks like here."

Mr. Ganji was sentenced in January 2001 for publishing a series of articles and a book, "The Red Eminence and the Gray Eminences," that charged senior regime officials with playing a direct role in a series of assassinations of Iranian intellectuals and dissidents in the late 1990s,which have become known as the "chain murders." On June 11, Mr. Ganji was rearrested for allegedly violating the terms of his medical leave for asthma and urging his countrymen to boycott last month's presidential election. In the interview with Emrooz, he challenged the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to stand for office. Ms. Shafieh yesterday told Emrooz that Mr. Khamenei could free her husband.

Yesterday Mr. Sazegara said that Mr. Bush's statements calling for freedom for Mr. Ganji were heard in Iran among the democratic opposition, but said they may not be enough. "We have an expression in Persian which you also have in English. Not a single hair on his head should be touched. That is what Mr. Bush should say about Ganji. Bush should make the consequences known to Iran if anything happens to Ganji."