WASHINGTON—Iranian writer and journalist Akbar Ganji, who spent over 6 years in a Tehran prison for opposing Iran’s theocratic regime, said that while the people of Iran are disenchanted with their government, U.S. policies are thwarting the people’s efforts to transform Iran into a democracy.
Ganji was speaking at the National Press Club Newsmaker press conference, May 10, while he was in town to accept the Cato Institute $500,000 Milton Friedman Prize later in the week. The award is for his work in resisting dictatorship and advancing democracy.
“Yesterday, in Iran, five political prisoners were executed,” was the first sentence uttered by Ganji, speaking through an interpreter. In his talk, Ganji laid bare the moral depravity of Iran’s fundamentalist regime and jihad Islamism.
“The regime fights vigorously against dissent, especially in areas of religious thinking.”
“In the past few years, over 100 [Iranian] journalists have been shut down,” said Ganji, who said that journalists are a special target of President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad’s regime because they report on its activities. “Journalists can spend months to several years in jail.”
"Anyone merely accused officially of acting against state interests is barred from working as a journalist for the rest of their life," Ganji said.
Ganji said that the Iranian regime routinely conducts illegal detentions. “By their own admission, in the disturbances last year, four prisoners have died under torture in jail. Again by their own admission, about 70 individuals connected with the Green movement protesting the elections were shot to death,” Ganji said.
To illustrate life under the theocratic regime, Ganji spoke of a law sanctioned by the state whereby if a person is perceived in some respect—which he didn’t define—as a enemy of Islam, then his “blood can be shed.” Ganji said, “People have actually been murdered under this law. The murderer is acquitted if he can prove that the person he killed is one whose blood can be shed.”
Becomes Critic of the Iranian Theocracy
Ganji knows first hand about the repressive nature of this regime. From 2001 to 2006, he was held in the Evin Prison in Tehran, much of it in solitary confinement. To protest his conditions he went on hunger strike for more than seventy days (not consecutive) from which he nearly died.
In the “Road to Democracy in Iran,” the only English book available of Ganji’s writings, he says he was nearly murdered when someone had just entered his cell in the middle of the night and was about to kill him. The plot was foiled by Ganji yelling so that the other prisoners would be witness to his death.
Ganji became a target of the regime by becoming Iran’s most accomplished investigative journalist.
He wrote a collection of essays on the financial corruption of the Rafsanjanis—a prominent family in Iran. And he implicated high government officials in the murder of intellectual opponents of the regime in a series of articles called Serial Murders. His published writings together with the writings smuggled out of prison, and his defiance of his mistreatment through long hunger strikes won him international acclaim that eventually led to his release and freedom out of Iran after he served his 6 year sentence.
Ganji wasn’t always a regime critic. He began as an anti-Shah activist and Revolutionary Guard member, who supported the 1979 Revolution and its leader Ayatollah Khomeini. But when he saw the tyranny and special privileges of the regime rulers, he turned against religious fundamentalism, and its intolerance and repression.
He said in “Road to Democracy” that he remains a Muslim while wholeheartedly supporting democratic movement reforms. His writings have been about reconciling Islam with modern thinking, rationalism, democracy and the rule of law.
“Fundamentalist readings of Islam are inimical to the democratic process… It embraces the use of violence in establishing a society ruled by divine law, Shari,” Ganji writes. He opposes the creation of a state based on Shari and Islamic jurisprudence, whereby the “religion and the clergy intercede in every aspect of social life.”