Free Thinker

"The regime's biggest weakness is human rights. This is the issue on which it loses face with its people," says Akbar Ganji, released in March after six years in jail. (By Bruno Vincent -- Getty Images)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006

Akbar Ganji is free -- for now. He does not expect his liberty to last long.

Ganji, a small man with a whisper of a voice, is an Iranian writer who has taken on the world's mightiest theocracy and its thundering ayatollahs. Released in March after six years in prison -- a good chunk of that time in solitary confinement -- he is today the most radical democrat in Tehran. Several hunger strikes have left him with an emaciated body, at one point down more than 55 pounds, to 108. Deep crow's-feet dig dark crevices around his eyes when he smiles, belying his 46 years.

Ganji is a lonely voice in Iran these days, as hard-line leaders' positions are hardening and the reform movement has atrophied. Disillusioned, he has also turned against the very reformers who view him as their hero.

"The regime is driving Iran towards a catastrophe. . . . Iran is today an archipelago of prisons," he said during one of two recent interviews in Washington. ". . . But the path of the reformers is not correct either."

Ganji is brazen by the standards of a movement more comfortable with nuances, nudges and compromise. His investigative articles in Iranian newspapers linked Iran's intelligence ministry to the killings of dozens of dissidents during the 1990s.

He compiled his accusations against the regime in "Dungeon of Ghosts," the Iranian equivalent of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago." His other books chronicled corruption by top clergy. Put on trial in 2000 for defaming the regime and jeopardizing national security, he tore open his gray prison uniform to sit shirtless in court, showing what he said were the wounds of torture.

Food -- the lack of it -- became his weapon. In prison, he almost died during a 73-day hunger strike last year to protest his treatment and incarceration. He was eventually hospitalized.

"There is perhaps no greater exemplar of journalistic heroism in the world today," the National Press Club said in announcing that Ganji would receive its international Freedom of the Press award last month.

"His significance today remains in the example he sets," added Shaul Bakhash, a former Iranian journalist who is now a history professor at George Mason University. "He remains unflinching in his belief that it is the duty of intellectuals to speak out against tyranny and the suppression of individual rights. And he continues to speak out despite harsh treatment in the past and the prospect of further incarceration in the future."

Yet Ganji is no fan of the White House, either.

A year ago, President Bush issued a statement saying he was "saddened" by reports of Ganji's deteriorating health in prison. The White House demanded that Tehran release him for medical treatment, and it appealed to human rights activists around the world to rally to his cause.

"His valiant efforts should not go in vain," the White House statement said. "Mr. Ganji, please know that as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."

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