Akbar Ganji's moment

About the author
Nazila Fathi reports for the New York Times from Tehran. She translated Shirin Ebadi’s book, The History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran, from Farsi into English.

Iran's most prominent political prisoner, Akbar Ganji, was released on the evening of 17 March 2006 after serving a six-year prison term. Even though he appeared aged and frail by a lengthy hunger-strike, his release was celebrated as sign of victory by dissidents and human-rights activists.

His release had been expected, though the actual event arrived unannounced. Ganji was simply dropped by prison officials at his home. The change in his appearance after a long jail term (including extensive periods on hunger-strike) made him hard to recognise: he looked gaunt and unhealthy, and wore a long, heavy beard.

He sat alongside his family and friends as they and many activists celebrated his homecoming. His persistence and bold views, which many shared but had not dared to articulate, had made him a respected figurehead of civil, non-violent resistance.

Abdullah Momeni, a student leader in Tehran who has himself been imprisoned for dissident activities, said that as many as 100 students had called in the early hours after the dissident's release to congratulate him on his recovery of freedom. "The student movement respects Mr Ganji for two reasons", said Momeni. "First, he served his term and never retreated from his opinions. Second, he has become a symbol for republican demands. The students believe his views are very close to what they themselves want."

Nazila Fathi reports for the New York Times from Tehran. She translated Shirin Ebadi's book, The History and Documentation of Human Rights in Iran from Farsi into English.

Also by Nazila Fathi in openDemocracy:

"Shirin Ebadi and Iran's women: in the vanguard of change"
(October 2003)

"Untranslatable words – Taarof" (August 2004)

"The politics of illusion in Iran" (August 2005)

Ganji, 46, supported the 1979 revolution and served in the hardline Revolutionary Guards, though his political views gradually shifted. He became a reformist and supported Mohammad Khatami, elected president in 1997. But later he was disappointed by his constant compromises and became one of the most vocal opposition figures inside the country.

He was jailed in April 2000 after he wrote a book in which he accused senior officials of being involved in the assassination of some eighty dissidents and intellectuals. But authorities never managed to silence him in prison. His writings, which were smuggled out of prison and circulated widely on the internet, called for an end to the clerical regime and laid out his ideas for a secular democratic system.

His opposition to the current system went as far as calling for the resignation of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose position makes him immune from public criticism.

"I have stressed many times that the ruling 'sultanist' system of Iran is an undemocratic system", Ganji wrote in a letter from prison in summer 2005, in the midst of his hunger-strike in protest at his unfair imprisonment. "To have an unelected lifetime leader is at odds with democracy. His power does not derive from the people, but rather he is claimed to have been appointed by God to rule over the people. He is not a regular person like all other human beings; the gap between him and ordinary people is the gap between the shepherd and the herd. This is the content of the incorrect theory of the 'guardianship of the jurisprudent' [Velayat-i Faqih]."

In the political vacuum following the weakening of Khatami's reformist project, Ganji's writings from prison provided welcome guidelines for Iranian dissidents. His two-part Republican Manifesto was published at a time (2002-05) when the reform movement had begun to dissipate; in the context of the movement's failure to offer a cohesive plan for change, Ganji's calm, reasoned arguments won him renown.

The six chapters of the first volume, published in 2002, laid out the basis of Ganji's proposal of a fully-fledged democratic republic in Iran. He argued that elections should be boycotted. The second part, published in 2005 before the presidential election in June that year, called for a complete boycott of the election. He argued that voters could undermine the legitimacy of the regime by staying away from the polls; by contrast, "participating in the elections (as candidates and as voters) is the best way to cooperate with, and legitimise, the system."

He accused reformist politicians of "functioning as mere shop windows for the system" by encouraging reform from within and by colluding in elections that could not bring progress. "The reformists' widespread cooperation in the past eight years through participation in the executive and legislative powers not only did not achieve anything for democracy in Iran, but it created legitimacy for tyrants", Ganji wrote.

Also in openDemocracy about Akbar Ganji and Iran's democratic movement:

"Free Akbar Ganji: an appeal to Iran"
(July 2005)

Masoud Behnoud, "Akbar Ganji in the prison of Iran" (July 2005)

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At the time, Ganji advocated non-violent resistance as the best method to change the regime. He also called for a referendum in which people could vote for the type of government they wanted. But after he realised that the clerical regime would refuse such a vote, he advocated civil disobedience as a way to mobilise support behind a democratic project.

"The cost of civil disobedience depends on two things: the particular law that is broken, and the number of people who break the law. The benefits are that the costs are low, and – due to the widespread character of the law-breaking, the system retreats before the people", he argued.

Those who fought for Ganji's release were also affected by his situation. One of his lawyers was Abdolfattah Soltani, who also represented the family of Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who died after a severe beating in July 2003 while held in custody in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Soltani was arrested on vague charges of nuclear espionage and jailed for eight months. He was released ten days before Ganji came home. He told newspapers shortly after his release that he spent most of his detention in solitary confinement, a tiny, bare cell lit by a lamp which was never turned off.

Ganji's release gives little indication of any wider improvement in the human-rights situation in Iran, since many more dissidents remain in jail. In any case, he was freed only after he had served his sentence almost in full, and the judiciary has said that he could face additional charges for his writings.

But one reformist politician and former editor of the monthly magazine Aftab, Issa Saharkhiz – who now directs an association for press freedom – was cautiously optimistic: "Akbar Ganji provided society with a new discourse and very explicitly, not implicitly or behind the scenes, talked about what people want. His release can bring hope into society and revive those democratic demands."