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Letter from Evin Prison

The Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji was arrested in Tehran in April 2000 and, after a series of trials, was sentenced to six years in prison for his political writings, for allegedly spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic, and for collecting confidential information harmful to national security. By now he has been in prison for nearly five years, part of the time in solitary confinement; the judicial authorities have suggested that more charges against Ganji for his various writings are pending. On July 18, on the thirty-eighth day of a hunger strike to protest his incarceration, Ganji, who had become gravely ill, was transferred from Evin Prison to a hospital. On August 22, he confirmed that he had broken his hunger strike.

Ganji, a young revolutionary in 1979, initially worked as an editor of publications circulated within the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But in the 1990s, he became involved with reform journals. He was a member of the editorial board of the monthly Kiyan, Iran’s principal intellectual journal, before it was shut down by the authorities in 2000. Kiyan put forward to its educated readership the powerful ideas that fueled the reform movement that sprang up in the mid-1990s. In essays by Ganji and others it discussed the need in Iran for civil society, individual rights, the rule of law, and government answerable to the people. Kiyan also featured the essays of Abdolkarim Soroush, perhaps the most influential religious reformist thinker of his generation, who has argued for an approach to Islam that emphasizes pluralism, critical inquiry, and individual rights.

Ganji was also associated with several of the reformist newspapers that flourished during Mohammad Khatami’s first term as president between 1997 and 2001. In April 2000, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, charged that such newspapers had become “bases of the enemy” and were serving the aims of “enemy agents.” During the crackdown on the press that followed, more than one hundred publications were forced to close. Ganji was one of a number of journalists and intellectuals arrested, tried, and jailed as a result. But Ganji was given the longest and harshest prison term, principally, it is believed, because of a series of articles by him in the newspapers Sobh-e Emruz and ‘Asr-e Azadegan that indirectly implicated senior officials and clerics, as well as officials in the Ministry of Intelligence and other security agencies, in the “serial murders” of prominent intellectuals and dissidents.1 He also hinted at their complicity in the attempt on the life of Sa’id Hajjarian, Khatami’s principal political adviser, and earlier murders of writers and opposition political figures. Ganji accused clerics of issuing fatwas, or religious decrees, sanctioning these killings. He wrote of “gray eminences” who, behind closed doors, agreed on eliminating intellectuals and opposition figures. Ganji seemed to concentrate his criticism on Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, during whose presidency the first series of murders had taken place. In these writings Ganji had obviously gone too far.

While on a hunger strike in prison, Ganji issued a number of statements, including two letters “to the Free People of the World.” In these, he criticized the violations of individual rights in the Islamic Republic and laid out an argument for civil disobedience aimed at challenging the legitimacy of the regime. Central to his argument is that intellectuals have a duty to speak out and to serve as examples. He cited the example of Socrates, and repeated a question posed by Milan Kundera: “Is it better to cry out and hasten our death or to keep our silence and drag out our slow and gradual dying?”

Ganji also issued two parts of what he describes as A Republican Manifesto, in which he uses the term “republic” in the traditional sense to refer to a political system based on the will of the people, which he contrasts with the political system prevailing in Iran. Iran has an elected president and parliament, but ultimate authority is vested in the supreme religious leader who wields vast powers and, once selected, holds his position for life. Ganji condemns this system, known under the Iranian constitution as “the vice-regency of the Islamic jurist,” as a form of “sultanism” in which the ruler usurps the rights of the people.

Ganji wrote from prison an open letter to his former teacher Soroush. The letter appeared after he was transferred to a hospital in July and it is striking for several reasons. It is a sharp and direct attack on the personal record of Khamenei as Iran’s leader—a form of criticism that most Iranian dissidents have avoided. Ganji holds Khamenei directly responsible for the many violations of law and human rights of the last decade—the incarceration and assassination of dissidents, the suppression of newspapers, the tampering with elections, the subservience of the judiciary to the state, and the widespread official corruption. “Khamenei must go,” as he writes, is a principal theme of his letter.

Ganji differs here with many of his reformist friends. The reform movement that took shape under Khatami held that democracy and individual rights could still be achieved under Iran’s current constitution, notwithstanding the extensive powers vested in the supreme leader. Ganji challenges that view. He does not advocate revolution, but he calls for elimination of the office of the supreme leader and a fully republican form of government.

Following are excerpts from Ganji’s letter to Soroush:

To Professor Abdolkarim Soroush:

I received your compassionate and caring letter of July 12, 2005. The story of our relationship goes back to the beginning of the revolution: to your classes on the introduction to philosophy, the philosophy of science, morals, origin and return, transubstantiation; to our private, one-on-one sessions when I asked endless questions and you generously replied to them.

Beginning in 1979, a friendship began between us which never ended. Our generation is greatly indebted to you. Through you we became familiar with modernity and different approaches to religion and the idea of the righteous man. With you, we explored new worlds, and you cleansed our eyes so that we saw in a different way. It was not merely a question of analytical philosophy and critical reasoning. With Rumi and Hafez, you lighted a fire in our beings which will never be extinguished.2 Can one come to know Rumi’s spiritual awakening and not flee the fundamentalism of the deceivers? The Hafez who criticized the false piety and hypocrisy of the shaykhs [the clergy] gave us due warning.

Hafez told us, “The preachers busy themselves with other things in private.” Since they do not believe in the Day of Judgment, as judges, they cheat and deceive. They hide their fornication behind their clerical robes. They open the door to the house of deception and lies. Tainted in every way, they claim to be innocent. They are know-nothings but claim deep knowledge. They break agreements. Hafez’s critique of the clerical community and its pestilence is boundless.

But Hafez’s critique must be brought to completion. He had no experience or knowledge of totalitarian societies and fascist movements, which came into being later. A totalitarian system and a repressive system mean fear and terror. It is a society with one voice, in which only the voice of the leader is heard. Where civil society is completely crushed, and the state does not recognize a private sphere, the leader has the status of a god; and the people must be made to fear this wretched person, himself afraid and fearful of others.

The autocratic leader sees everyone as an enemy. Yesterday’s friends are for him tomorrow’s enemies. Even the death of rivals does not put his mind at ease. Their memory and names must be erased from history and memory. Wherever the people go and wherever they look, they must see the leader. We are face to face with a manic desire to create such a system. Since Hafez is no longer with us to criticize this aspiration in his poetry, others must portray this mania and mercilessly criticize it.

The slaughter of intellectuals and dissidents and the suppression of newspapers and the imprisonment of journalists; the physical and verbal attacks on university professors; the use of batons and brass knuckles against people who attend meetings calling for democracy—these reflected not merely a wish and aspiration. These were the essence of that aspiration, whose logical conclusion is fascism and part of the heritage of Nazism, inherited by Iranian fascists. The solitary confinement of dissidents and their torture to secure confessions for crimes they did not commit were copied from the practices of Stalin. Stalinism itself is defined by the solitary cell and forcing people to destroy themselves to please the leader.

Mr. Khamenei considered the media the base of the enemy, and the intellectuals the agents of the enemy’s cultural assault on the regime; therefore, some intellectuals were slaughtered and assassinated, some were imprisoned, a number were tortured, some were verbally and physically assaulted in city squares, and still others were eliminated in other ways. Through these methods not only were the views of Mr. Khamenei to be realized but it was also necessary that the phantom enemies—the products of Mr. Khamenei’s imaginings—be destroyed.

You will certainly recall what an uproar was created when the regime announced that a major spy affair had been uncovered [in the opinion polls case].3 [Sa’id] Mortazavi created “spies” through torture and the falsification of documents because Mr. Khamenei wished there to be [foreign] spies among the reformers, since he considered the reformers enemies.4 The slogans of social justice and fighting economic corruption are used to give free rein to agents of tyranny and exploitation, and to fill their pockets.

It astonishes me that Mr. Khamenei speaks of Iran as the most free and democratic country in the region. What freedom does he speak of when dissidents are denied the right to life? If it is not possible to criticize the political leader of the country, one cannot claim that freedom of speech exists. If a person is required to pay a heavy price for indirectly criticizing the leader, this is not freedom; it is, rather, a totalitarian form of autocracy. In June 1997, I lectured at Shiraz University on the theoretical foundations of fascism. I did not think anyone would object. But I was surprised to find that the revolutionary court convicted me of insulting the Iranian Leader—instead of Hitler and Mussolini—and sentenced me to one year in jail. When criticism of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin is considered criticism of the Leader, how can claims be made for freedom of speech and democracy?

Even more interesting are Mr. Khamenei’s claims regarding popular sovereignty. What are reasonable men and women to think when one person has absolute power for life and still speaks of the popular base of his government? Mr. Khamenei might answer just one question: How would it be possible through peaceful means to remove him from power? How can one discuss removing him from power and yet avoid being butchered? Mr. Khamenei used to say that if the Leader does not reply to a question or to an interpellation [an open challenge in Parliament], he automatically loses office. Let us ignore all the previous [unanswered] questions that have been addressed to Khamenei. I aim at removing him from the political leadership of the country. How can I achieve this goal through peaceful means? Mr. Khamenei must give a clear answer.

Even if I overlooked my two thousand days in prison, I cannot overlook the extensive violation of human rights by Mr. Khamenei, an autocratic, sultanic government, widespread official corruption, the assassination of opponents, and a thousand other things.

Khamenei must go since he can tolerate no one else. Khamenei must go because the serial murders took place during his period in office. He must go because more than one hundred publications were closed down and journalists imprisoned at his direct orders. He must go because in the elections for the seventh Majlis and the last presidential elections he unjustly eliminated the opposition and advanced his own disciples. He must go because he created by his actions millions of Iranian refugees throughout the world and does not acknowledge that Iran belongs to all Iranians. He must go because hundreds of university professors in Iran, like Dr. Soroush, cannot teach or work, and instead of teaching and training young Iranians they must teach the young of other countries. Khamenei must go because he gave authority both to those in charge of the killing of prisoners in the summer of 19885 and to those who ordered the murders of dissidents.

I greatly regret that there are some who believe that it is possible to deal with a sultanic system by using cautious statements on democracy and liberty and still arrive at a democratic system. Montesquieu’s wise observation must never be forgotten: that power can only be limited by power. Only with the mobilization of society and the formation of a democratic and human rights front through civil disobedience is it possible to stand up to a sultanic system.

Beloved Teacher:

I have always believed in God’s mercy, and I know He always looks compassionately on his servants. I miss you a great deal. If only it would be my good fortune to see you under these conditions, to hear you speak of Rumi, and to have you take me with you into his universe.

I am certain that this night of darkness will not last. The moon of freedom will emerge from behind the clouds of religious tyranny and shower us all with joy.

Akbar Ganji

Saturday, July 23, 2005, on the forty-third day of his hunger strike

  1. 1

    In November 1998, the opposition political activist Dariush Foruhar and his wife were found brutally murdered in their apartment and three prominent dissident writers were killed and their bodies left in various parts of Tehran. These came to be known as the “serial murders.” Under pressure from the reformist press and President Khatami, the Ministry of Intelligence later admitted its own agents were responsible for the killings, although it claimed this was a rogue operation. These killings followed the death in 1994 of the respected writer-satirist Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani while in police custody and the killing of several other prominent writers in the following two years.

  2. 2

    Rumi (circa 1207–1273) and Hafez (circa 1320–1389) are much-loved Iranian poets whose writing is strongly tinged with mysticism. Hafez’s verse is full of critical references to the clergy.

  3. 3

    In late 2002, two poll-takers, Abbas Abdi and Hossein Ghazian, associated with Ayandeh, a public-opinion research organization, reported that a majority of Iranians polled favored relations with the US. The poll was carried out, in part, on behalf of the Gallup Organization. After being tried on charges of “passing information to enemy countries” and spreading “propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” they were sentenced to over four years in prison.

  4. 4

    Sa’id Mortazavi is the notorious judge and Tehran public prosecutor who was involved in the sentencing of many prominent journalists and intellectuals. In 2003, he was the interrogator of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist, who died from a blow to the head she received under questioning.

  5. 5

    In the last stages of the Iran–Iraq war in the summer of 1988, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an opposition group based in Iraq and associated with Saddam Hussein, staged a major military incursion into Iran. The government retaliated by putting to death between 1,000 and 1,700 members of the Mujahedin and other left-wing organizations held in Iranian jails.

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