By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 19, 2006
TEHRAN, March 18 -- Iran's most prominent dissident emerged from prison looking far older than his 46 years. His clothes hung on a frame reduced to 108 pounds by repeated hunger strikes. He smiled through a beard grown to the bushy nimbus of a Hindu holy man.
"All the time I was in prison was illegal," Akbar Ganji said of the six-year sentence he served for exposing the government's role in assassinating its critics. "From the very first day it was illegal."
Ganji's incarceration ended at 10 p.m. Friday, when Iranian security services dropped him unannounced at his family's apartment in northwest Tehran. The homecoming, which blossomed Saturday morning into a celebratory news conference as word of his release spread, was a rare moment of cheer for Iranian activists who have been steadily steered to the sidelines by the clerics who regulate Iran's politics from powerful, appointive offices.
Ganji, squeezed into a love seat between his wife and his attorney, faced a living room jammed with buoyant Iranian journalists who have seen more than 100 newspapers closed down since he was jailed for what he wrote in one of them. The bones of his shoulders poked through the fabric of a rayon T-shirt. His forehead was scabbed by sores that suggested poor nutrition.
The persistence with which Ganji defied Iran's ruling clerics made him an international symbol of resistance but also ensured he served his entire sentence. Once freed, he proved unable to heed advice to keep quiet until he could assess the current level of tolerance for dissent in Iran.
"Please don't do anything that will take him off to prison again," said his beaming wife, Masoumeh Shafiei, as visiting neighbors edged through the crush, offering trays of tea and a jumbo box of sticky sweets. Digital shutters burred like cicadas, and attorney Yusef Molaei joked that since his interrogators insisted Ganji had received money from foreigners, they might as well charge photojournalists a fee.
"I was told when I was in prison I was too stubborn to listen to anybody," Ganji said. He sounded almost sincere when he added, "Don't write anything, please."
Self-censorship has become a fact of life for Iran's surviving private press as the country's reform movement has flagged. In 1999, thousands of Iranians marched in the streets to express their outrage at the assassination of dissidents in their homes. Ganji went to prison in 2000 for writing about the killings, but public support for reforms continued to grow. The demonstrations, along with landslide elections of a reformist president and parliament, checked the power of conservatives who insisted that a hard line was essential to protect Iran's theocratic system after the death of its charismatic founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
But by 2004, conservatives had regained the upper hand, relieving pressure for social freedoms by greatly relaxing enforcement of laws on personal behavior while steadily reducing the maneuvering room of political reformers and publications that supported them.
Against that unrelenting pressure, Ganji pushed back. From prison, he published a manifesto calling for Iran to discard clerical rule and become a secular republic. When allowed home for a few days' leave, he urged foreign reporters to print statements that made officials visibly blanch.
Other advocates of reform opted against direct confrontation, hoping to nurture progress inside a system that grew steadily more responsive under eight years of reformist administration. Emad Baghi, who like Ganji was jailed for writing about what were known as the "serial murders," served only half of the same sentence. During the extra three years Ganji remained inside as a beacon of defiance, Baghi began a newspaper and, after it was banned, a human rights organization.
"I believe both of the approaches are important for us," said Saeed Bostani, a reporter who worked for Baghi and was jailed for seven months for reporting Ganji's deteriorating medical condition.
"When I was in prison, I believed in Mr. Ganji's approach that refuses to compromise, just go all out," Bostani said. "But since I came out into society, I think Mr. Baghi's approach has merit, that we can put pressure on the state and make changes."
Neither avenue is free of risk. Two of Baghi's associates were jailed for a month by security officials suspicious of their attendance at a human rights workshop in Dubai last year.
"Every day I woke up and said, 'Open your heart, I'm coming home.' It's the Pink Floyd song," said Ali Afsahi, freed this week after 30 days alone in a cell with a light that was never turned off.
Afsahi said his interrogators accused him of accepting money from the Bush administration, which has proposed spending $75 million to promote democracy in Iran. He said he was disturbed to find the Dubai workshop run by Iranian exiles, who he described as out of touch with the subtleties of the country's society.
"Look, with the reformists out of power I got put in prison," Afsahi said, but he was freed after intervention by senior officials who shared his values. "Even though I'm working alone, because the ideas I promote are in touch with the realities of our society, people understand what we are doing."
Late Saturday, eight more prisoners were released, all members of a bus drivers union jailed after striking for more pay. Mohsen Kadivar, a leading reformist cleric, said at least 40 political prisoners remain behind bars.