August 8, 2005

From Revolutionary to Dissident BY ELI LAKE - Staff Reporter of the Sun August 8, 2005

WASHINGTON - Inside a cramped room at Tehran's Milad Hospital, guarded 24 hours a day by special police, a starving writer has done something that Iran's powerful guardian council and supreme leader failed to accomplish in eight years. Akbar Ganji has delivered what might very well be the death knell to his country's reform movement.

In recent open letters from Evin Prison and later Milad, Mr. Ganji has dissected the movement he once championed. In one, dated July 22, Mr. Ganji respectfully told his old mentor - a professor widely seen as the intellectual founder of Iran's reform movement, Abdol Karim Soroush - that he would not heed Mr. Soroush's advice and end his hunger strike. The dissident's protest began on June 11, when he was re-arrested for urging a boycott of the presidential elections reluctantly endorsed by the heirs to the outgoing reformist president, Mohammed Khatemi.

"It saddens me considerably to see some who are under the impression that it is possible to confront the Sultanist system by cautious words about democracy and free speech, and to make the transition to a democratic system this way," Mr. Ganji wrote to Mr. Soroush.

Mr. Ganji has sent even bolder missives from prison. In one, he called for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to go, using nearly the exact phrasing that Ayatollah Khomenei did when demanding the shah's ouster a generation earlier. But it was the journalist's discourse with Mr. Soroush that exposed the failure of his country's eight-year reformist experiment. Its vanquished leaders sought to use Mr. Khatemi's office to open Iranian society. Such measures were invariably overturned by the men responsible for keeping it closed: the body created to ensure no political laws would contradict Islam, the guardian council.

Political martyrdom is an unlikely role for this once pudgy journalist who in the past worked for the very intelligence service now monitoring his room at Milad Hospital. Born in 1961 in Tehran, Mr. Ganji was an early supporter of the Islamic revolution, briefly volunteering as a bodyguard for Khomenei and later joining the propaganda wing of the revolutionary guard. In the early days, Mr. Ganji wrote pamphlets extolling the ideology of Ali Shariati, a philosopher who married Shiite Islam with the anti-colonial philosophy of thinkers such as the Algerian polemicist Franz Fanon. In the 1980s, Mr. Ganji completed a sociology degree and took a job as a cultural attache to the Iranian embassy in Ankara, Turkey.

Perhaps for this reason, his hunger strike has been criticized by some exile groups that never accepted Mr. Ganji's political evolution. In an open letter to Mr. Ganji released last month, the chairman of the Los Angeles-based Iranians for a Secular Republic accused the writer of placing thumb tacks in the foreheads of unveiled women.

"We cannot remain indifferent in the face of your project of purifying the image of the murderous Ayatollah Khomenei on which you and your colleagues have been working on for several years," Roozbeh Farahanipour wrote.

Other observers and former colleagues of Mr. Ganji could not confirm that Mr. Ganji participated in mutilations of women and dispelled the notion that he is an apologist for Khomeini.

"What distinguishes Ganji is his moral and intellectual integrity," a historian and human rights advocate, Ladan Boroumand, said in an interview last week. "We are a generation dominated by the Marxist Leninism and the goal justifies the means mentality. But Ganji has evolved as an intellectual and in doing this he has revived the tradition of Shapur Bakhtiar," she said, referring to the former Iranian president.

Mr. Ganji told Afshin Molavi in the book "Persian Pilgrimages" that he became disillusioned with Shariati and the Islamic Republic in 1984 and 1985. "Anyone who asked questions was being abused by a fascist system," Mr. Molavi remembered Mr. Ganji saying. "At the time I met with him, he was a religious man, but he was also clear that a certain faction in Iran had turned to the ideology of fascism."

In fact, Mr. Ganji gave a speech at the University of Shiraz in 1997 titled, "The Fascist Interpretation of Religion and Government." In it, he compared the Islamic Republic's ideology to Benito Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany, focusing on the obliteration of the individual's rights. Delivering the speech led to Mr. Ganji's first arrest. "He did not refer directly to the supreme leader in this speech, but everyone knew what he was talking about," the writer's friend Mohsen Sazegara said.

Mr. Sazegara knew Mr. Ganji from their work on Kyan magazine, a publication devoted to the philosophy of Mr. Soroush. "He sometimes would work 15 hours straight for one article. It was an amazing thing to see him work. When you would come to his home, his desk would be surrounded by 100 books," Mr. Sazegara said. He also remembered Mr. Ganji's "delightful sense of humor," recalling how he played jokes on his colleagues.

After his first stint in prison, Mr. Ganji wrote a series of articles and a book, "The Red Eminence and Gray Eminences," which accused a former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, of helping to plot the murders of Iranian dissidents in the late 1990s, known in the country as the "chain murders." The publication of these texts and Mr. Ganji's attendance at a reformist conference in 2000 in Berlin led to another arrest that year. In 2001, he was sentenced to six years at Evin Prison. Nonetheless, he urged Iranians to vote for Mr. Khatemi in 2000, despite the fact that the vote came after the July 9, 1999, student uprisings at Tehran University, which were brutally dispersed by the city's police.

It was not until this summer's election that Mr. Ganji endorsed a student boycott of the elections and began directing his grievances toward the supreme leader. In his open letters from prison, Mr. Ganji has said not only that Mr. Khamenei must leave power, but that if he dies from his hunger strike, his blood will be on the supreme leader's hands.

Mr. Sazegara, who himself was one of Iran's first dissidents to criticize Mr. Khamenei directly, said that Mr. Ganji's challenge to the supreme leader from jail was significant - and risky. "It is one thing to address Khamenei from outside the country or a position of protected power. But Ganji has done this from jail, and this is very courageous."

Mr. Ganji's wife, Massoumeh Shafieh, told reporters Thursday that she has not seen her husband for nearly a week, leading to doubts about his health among his supporters. All recent reports and photographs suggest that Mr. Ganji's condition has deteriorated, and that, while conscious, he rejects intravenous injections that have been keeping him alive.

Yesterday, Mr. Sazegara compared the prospects of Mr. Ganji's martyrdom to the funeral services for Shariati in 1978.

"I hate to predict something this terrible, but if Ganji dies it will be like the ceremony of Dr. Shariati. Twenty thousand showed up at his funeral even after the Savak (the secret security service for the shah) told them they could not. It was one of the events that led to the Islamic revolution. I don't know if there will be a revolution. But if Ganji dies, there will be massive hatred of the people against the regime."

Mr. Sazegara paused and then added that the object of the people's hatred will be Mr. Khamenei, the man Mr. Ganji has so explicitly compared to the shah.