Akbar Ganji is the Iranian journalist and dissident who for over a month now has been on hunger strike in Iran’s most infamous prison. Arrested in 2000 and ultimately sentenced to six years in jail for criticizing the regime, most notably in a series of articles he wrote implicating former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the murders of several dissidents and intellectuals, Ganji has become a symbol both inside Iran and out of the Islamic Republic’s techniques of repression and Iranians’ resistance. He published a powerful letter from prison after starting his hunger strike, and is reported to have recently written another. Yet his health has been deteriorating, and some say the indomitable Ganji could be near his end.
Amir Abbas Fakhravar, a political prisoner who has known Ganji and observed him closely for years, said in a phone interview from Iran last night that Ganji is in “terrible shape.” Another prisoner, says Fakhravar, saw that Ganji experienced great difficulty walking, standing, and even seeing and hearing, and that he refused intravenous feeding, which he has not received for days. “If this carries on, within 24 hours he will die,” says Fakhravar. “He has the conviction to go all the way to the end.” (A report last night suggested Ganji had been taken from the prison infirmary to the hospital, but the circumstances of his transfer remain unclear.)
President Bush has called for Ganji’s release, as have the State Department, several U.S. congressmen, and the European Union. Yet the Iranian judiciary has so far insisted he will not be freed, demanding that he receive medical treatment under official supervision. An Iranian news service reported that Ganji declared this weekend he would no longer cooperate with prison clinic officials, after the judiciary made inaccurate statements about his condition.
“If anything ever happens to Mr. Ganji,” says Fakhravar, who was himself arrested for criticizing the regime and sentenced to eight years in prison, “a revolution will happen in Iran…. [Ganji] knows his blood will create real turmoil, which the country will never come out of.” He continues, “Ganji is not a member of a particular opposition group or party, but every group loves him and has respect for him. The whole society will rise up.”
Fakhravar is hardly sanguine about the reaction such a popular uprising would generate–after all, he knows how the regime treats its critics. Still, he continues to make his views known, and has in fact just published his second book, he says, The Scraps of Prison, written half in Farsi and half in English. “[Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is the naked image of the Islamic Republic, without any mask,” Fakhravar says. “By all means, they will beat the hell out of the people. We want the world to look at us, so we won’t be forgotten. If the regime sees so many eyes on it, it won’t be as hard on us.”
As though by way of example, Fakhravar mentions one individual in particular, Sweden’s Fred Saberi, whom he credits for helping to call attention to the plight of Iran’s dissidents and ameliorate their treatment, including by securing temporary releases from prison. Fakhravar feels the U.S. government is also paying attention. Asked how dissidents reacted to President Bush’s statement calling for Ganji’s release, he says, “As a matter of fact, it had the most wonderful reaction, and not just among the opposition. For the first time we really felt the U.S. government and the American people are behind the Iranian struggle–that the support was not just rhetoric.”
But is the Bush administration prepared to handle the fallout that could result from further mistreatment of Akbar Ganji? The test could come soon.
–Rachel Zabarkes Friedman is a former associate editor of National Review.