Iranian Political Prisoner on Hunger Strike Nears Death

Akbar Ganji

hide captionAkbar Ganji has been on a hunger strike for 51 days. He has been in prison since 2000 for publishing articles linking the Rafsanjani regime to political murders in Iran.

Iran's best-known political prisoner Akbar Ganji lies near death, 51 days into a hunger strike. Jahanshah Javid, publisher of the web journal Iranian.com, discusses Ganji's stance on the separation of mosque and state in Iran.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Iran's most famous political prisoner lies near death in a Tehran hospital. Akbar Ganji, a journalist and activist, has been on a hunger strike for 51 days. He was sentenced to prison in 2000 for linking government officials to the assassination of political dissidents. President Bush and the US State Department have called for Ganji's release; so have numerous Iranian leaders. But Akbar Ganji seems almost certain to die. Bringing us up to date on this story is Jahanshah Javid, publisher of the Iranian.com Web site.

Thanks for speaking with us today.

Mr. JAHANSHAH JAVID (Publisher, Iranian.com): Thank you.

LYDEN: Jahanshah, why is Akbar Ganji on a hunger strike?

Mr. JAVID: Well, initially when he started this campaign about 50 days ago, it was just before the elections that brought about the new ultraconservative president, Ahmadinejad. And at that time his concern was that he was not being treated the same as the other political prisoners of his stature. And he is saying that one of the main reasons that it's come this far is that he has brought about his main concern that Iran's election was basically a farce and that much of this fault is from the Iran Constitution itself.

LYDEN: Why is he willing to die for this, and what precisely is it that he willing to die for? Is it to change the entire Islamic system in Iran?

Mr. JAVID: That appears to be so because he is part of the faction that supported Khatami's rise to the presidency, the outgoing president who is leaving after eight years in office. There was great hope in the Khatami presidency initially, and the reform movement was very strong. But there was a backlash, and the conservatives took power, and one of the victims of that push was Akbar Ganji, which was jailed for six years.

So since then Ganji has broken off with this reformist faction that supported Khatami and has taken a much more radical line. And, specifically, he's mentioning that the government should be separate from religion, and this is new from the reformist faction. So he's going a lot farther than the rest, and his emphasis on democracy is remarkable.

LYDEN: This is obviously an emotional issue, Jahanshah Javid.

Mr. JAVID: Well, it is because a lot of those who grew up in Ganji's time, including myself--he is from the same era, and I have great sympathy for him. And I left Iran about 15 years ago because of these kinds of pressures, and it'll be terrible to see him die.

LYDEN: What we've learned from hunger strikes in the past--for example, when Irish prisoners undertook hunger strikes--is that people often did not last beyond 60 days.

Mr. JAVID: Right.

LYDEN: He is now entering his 51st day. And yet next week we have the new president of Iran, the new hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, taking power. What do you think this is going to mean politically if Mr. Ganji should die next week?

Mr. JAVID: My guess is that if he dies, the international organizations and the governments of Europe--they are much closer in negotiations with the Iranian government--they will be forced to take issue with this. And it would make it much harder for Iran to reach some kind of deal with the Europeans. But also, inside Iran, after the Ahmadinejad election, there has been a general mood that's the same as Ganji's; that it's impossible to reform this system. So with Ganji's death, this will sharpen this movement and give it more meaning.

LYDEN: Well, Jahanshah Javid, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

Jahanshah Shavid is the publisher of the Iranian.com Web site. He spoke to us from Berkeley.

Thank you again.

Mr. JAVID: Thank you very much.

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