After 6 Years, Iranian Reporter Freed

Iran's high profile dissident journalist Akbar Ganji smiles at his home in Tehran, after his release from prison, 18 March 2006. Ganji was released overnight after six years in prison. Ganji, 46, was detained in 2000 and sentenced to six years in prison in 2001 after he wrote articles implicating several regime officials in a string of gruesome murders of opposition intellectuals and writers in 1998 -- crimes that shocked Iran. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI AFP Photo

Iran's most senior dissident journalist, Akbar Ganji, was freed after serving a six-year prison sentence and remained defiant, vowing Saturday to continue his vocal criticisms of the hard-line clerical regime.

Ganji, 46, appeared gaunt and considerably aged, with a long beard, in contrast to his previous unshaven look, as he received friends and family Saturday at his home in Tehran following his release the evening before.

"My views have not changed at all. Jail and pressures never forced me to change my views. Today, I'm more determined to say what I said six years ago," said Ganji, who was on hunger strike for about three months last year and was in solitary confinement for most of his time in prison.

"My imprisonment was unjust and will remain a great injustice forever," he said, drawing applause from his audience.

Ganji was sentenced to six years prison in 2000 after reporting on murders of five dissidents by Intelligence Ministry agents and became a hero to the country's reformists for standing up to hard-line clerics.

Ganji's wife, Masoumeh Shafiei, was worried about the toll prison had taken on the health of her husband, but she appeared delighted by his return as she handed out sweet drinks to their guests.

"My husband is so weak physically now. He is just 49 kilograms (108 pounds). But I'm happy he is back home," she said. Some of his friends initially had difficulty recognizing him because of the change in his appearance.

Many world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, called for Ganji's release because of his deteriorating health, but Iran's hard-line authorities rejected the demands. Ganji spent most of his jail term in solitary confinement and was on hunger strike for months.

His lawyer Yousef Mowlaei said Ganji was freed late Friday.

A statement by Iran's judiciary said Ganji was freed on leave for Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday, which begins Tuesday. The holiday runs until April 3, and the statement said his prison sentence officially ends March 30, so it appeared unlikely Ganji would be taken back into custody.

Ganji came to prominence after his investigation of the 1998 murders of five dissidents by Intelligence Ministry agents.

The Intelligence Ministry blamed the murders on "rogue agents" within the secret service. But Ganji's articles in the newspapers Sobh-e-Emrouz, Khordad and Fath said the killings were ordered by senior hard-liners in the ruling Islamic establishment, including former hard-line Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian. Fallahian has denied any involvement.

Ganji was convicted on charges that his articles insulted Iranian authorities. His imprisonment coincided with a massive media crackdown by hard-liners against the reformist press when former President Mohammad Khatami's reformist agenda was threatening the power of unelected hard-liners who dominate Iran's government.

Iran's hard-line judiciary has closed down more than 100 pro-democracy publications in the past five years, including the papers Ganji wrote for, on vague charges of insulting religious sanctities and top clerics.

In his writings, Ganji said Iran needs to stop granting absolute rule to a top cleric, currently supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.
  • Sean Alfano