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Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji earned the Islamic Republic's ire in 1999 as he investigated the murders the previous year of several prominent Iranian dissidents. His reports implicated former intelligence minister Ali Fallahian, Expediency Council chairman and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Dungeon of Ghosts,[1] his exposé of the role of the "intelligence mafia" in the murder of 200 reformist intellectuals both inside and outside Iran, became a national bestseller.

In January 2001, an Iranian court sentenced Ganji to ten years imprisonment although this was later reduced to six years.[2] On May 20, 2005, declaring, "No one should be imprisoned—not even for a second—for expressing an opinion," Ganji announced the start of a hunger strike, [3] which he suspended when briefly furloughed on May 29. Annoyed with his declaration about the fallacy of Iran's elections,[4] on June 11, 2005, authorities returned him to prison where he resumed his hunger strike. As his health faltered, the White House issued a statement calling for his unconditional release.[5] While he ended his hunger strike on August 17, his fate remains uncertain; Iranian authorities have placed him in solitary confinement and prevented all visits.[6]

While Iranian authorities have prevented further communications by Ganji, during his hunger strike, he managed to smuggle out from Tehran's Evin prison two letters that remain widely-circulated on the Internet[7] and published in the Arabic press.[8] The following translation of Ganji's June 29, 2005 letter, here slightly amended for clarity and grammar, is derived from both sources.

Letter to the Free People of the World

In authoritarian systems, lying converts from vice to virtue. These scoundrels [the Islamic Republic's leadership] claim: "We have no political prisoners, no solitary cells, and there are no hunger strikes in Iran's prisons; indeed, our prisons are like hotels." They solve their problems by changing names … [But] would an ass transform into a parrot, if we called it so? Prison means deprivation of freedom. Does a prison change its essence if we call it something else? ...

These liars, otherwise known as Islamic thinkers, are obsessed with the essence as opposed to the existence of human beings. They continue to deny holding prisoners of conscience behind bars, instead blaming the corrupt essence of these men and women for their imprisonment.

Of course, the entire world is aware that hundreds of people have been locked up across Iran in the last few years because of their beliefs. Liars, however, continue to deny prisoners of conscience exist in the Islamic Republic.

Tehran's prevaricating prosecutor [Sa‘id Mortazavi][9] claims, one day, that I am sent to a solitary cell for my hunger strike. Another day, he says I am taken to solitary confinement so I will learn a lesson; I am to stay there until I learn it. Yet in his last statement, he says: "Since Ganji has respiratory problems, doctors have recommended that he stay in a quiet environment away from disturbance…"

Just last month, the head of Tehran's justice department [‘Abbas ‘Ali ‘Alizadeh] claimed that I was not sick, and now they say that doctors have diagnosed me with respiratory problems. Have doctors also recommended my solitary confinement and depriving me of telephone calls, visitors, newspapers, fresh air, and sun? …

In the words of the prosecutor general, I am being punished so that I "wake up and realize [I have] embarked on the wrong path and desist, as other prisoners in the Islamic Republic have done." If this awakening means rejecting my deep-rooted convictions, then let the entire world know that I will forever remain asleep. All my writings, especially the first and second book of the Republican Manifesto,[10] are the result of staid deliberation. Retreating and signing letters of repentance are tactics that Joseph Stalin invented that Tehran has adopted.

If need be, I will continue my hunger strike until death. Today, my gaunt face unmasks the Islamic Republic. I have become a symbol of justice in the face of tyranny, my emaciated body exposing the contradictions of a government where justice and tyranny have been reversed.

Those who have seen me recently have asked in amazement, is this you? Is this the Ganji we all know? … The dramatic loss of weight I have experienced, from 77kg to 58kg, is a direct result of the torture I have been subjected to in the last month. This is why the authorities are refusing to allow the media to photograph me and publish the pictures.

Happy it is when the touchstone of experience cometh in play
So are left disgraced those who conceal impure alloy.[11]

I have said it before and will say it again: if I die, Supreme Leader Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei will be responsible for my death since the prosecutor general is directly answerable to him. I have protested against the absolute powers given to the Supreme Leader as they contradict the principles of democracy, with the knowledge that Khamenei does not tolerate criticism. We have all witnessed the punishment handed out to Ayatollah ‘Ali ‘Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mustafa Mo‘in [establishment figures and the losing presidential candidates] in the last presidential elections. …

The prosecutor general has openly discussed my death in prison. He has even asked my wife, "What if Ganji dies? Tens of individuals die behind bars everyday. He will be one of many." These are indeed Khamenei's words uttered through Mortazavi's lips. He doesn't understand that whilst my body might perish, my love of freedom and thirst for political justice will never die. Ganji might pass away, but his love for humanity, hope, and aspirations for a better future will remain.

Sana Nourani is a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

[1] Tarikkhaneh-' i ashbah (Tehran: Tarh-i Naw, 1999).
[2] BBC World Service, July 16, 2001.
[3] "Akbar Ganji Goes on Hunger Strike," Reporters without Borders, May 20, 2005.
[4] See, for example, interview with Akbar Ganji, Rooz Online, June 7, 2005.
[5] "Statement on a Call for the Unconditional Releases of Akbar Ganji in Iran," White House, July 12, 2005.
[6] "No News of Akbar Ganji for the Past 25 Days," Reporters without Borders, Sept. 20, 2005.
[7] "Letter to the Free People of the World," Free Ganji weblog.
[8] Asharq al-Awsat (London), July 12, 2005.
[9] A hard-liner and an ally of newly elected president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Mortazavi has been implicated in the 2003 death of Canadian-Iranian journalist Zahra Kazemi.
[10] In the first book of the Republican Manifesto (Manifist-i Jumhurikhvahi), penned in prison and released in March 2002, Ganji called for an end to clerical rule in favor of democracy. In May 2005, he released a second book, a 60-page pamphlet calling for a boycott of the May 2005 presidential elections.
[11] A line from a sonnet by Hafez, the fourteenth-century Persian poet.