|On 28 September 2006 openDemocracy hosted a public dialogue between Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago's International House|
31 January 1960 |
Akbar Ganji (Persian: اکبر گنجی , born 31 January 1960 in Qazvin Province) is an Iranian journalist and writer. He has been described as "Iran’s preeminent political dissident", and a "wildly popular pro-democracy journalist" who has crossed press censorship "red lines" regularly. A supporter of the Islamic revolution as a youth, he became disenchanted in the mid-1990s and served time in Tehran's Evin Prison from 2001 to 2006 after publishing a series of stories on the murder of dissident authors known as the Chain Murders of Iran. While in prison he issued a manifesto which established him as the first "prominent dissident, believing Muslim and former revolutionary" to call for a replacement of Iran's theocratic system with "a democracy".
Having been named honorary citizen of many European cities and awarded distinctions for his writing and civil, Ganji has won several international awards for his work, including the World Association of Newspapers' Golden Pen of Freedom Award, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression's International Press Freedom Award, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, the Cato Institute Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty and the John Humphrey Freedom Award.
Ganji grew up in a devout and impoverished family in Southern Tehran. Active in the Islamist anti-Shah forces at a "relatively early age", he served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps during the Iran–Iraq War. He holds a Masters degree in Communications.
In 1994-5 Ganji became disenchanted with the regime. "I saw a fascism and political tyranny emerging in Iran. Anyone who asked questions was branded 'anti-revolutionary' and 'against Iran'." Ganji quit the Guard to become an investigative journalist. Shortly thereafter he gained fame and ran afoul of Islamic authorities by "exposing the role of high officials in sanctioning the murder of liberal dissidents".
Investigation of the Chain Murders of Iran
Ganji has written extensively as a journalist in a series of reformist newspapers, many of which were shut down by the Judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Possibly Ganji's most famous work was a series of articles in Saeed Hajjarian's Sobh Emrouz daily about the 1998 murders of dissident authors known as the Chain Murders of Iran. Akbar Ganji referred to the perpetrators of the killings with code names such as "Excellency Red Garmented" and their "Excellencies Gray" and the "Master Key".
In December 2000, after his arrest (see below), Akbar Ganji announced the "Master Key" to the chain murders was former Intelligence Minister Hojjatoleslam Ali Fallahian. He "also denounced by name some senior clerics, including Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi for having encouraged or issued fatwas, or religious orders for the assassinations". Conservatives have attacked Ganji and denied his claim.
Collections of his articles appeared in books, notably, "The Dungeon of Ghosts" and "The Red Eminence, The Grey Eminences" (Alijenob Sorkhpoosh va Alijenob-e Khakestari (2000)) focusing on the involvement of the former President of Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and his Minister of Intelligence, Ali Fallahian, in the chain murders. The Red Eminence and the Grey Eminences has been described by the Washington Post newspaper in the US as "the Iranian equivalent of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago". The one volume of his writings to appear in English translation is The Road to Democracy in Iran (MIT Press, April 2008).
Arrest and imprisonment
Ganji took part in a conference in Berlin held by the Heinrich Boell Foundation under the title "Iran after the elections" held in the wake of the Majlis elections of February 2000 which resulted in a huge victory by reformist candidates. The gathering was termed "anti-Islamic" and "anti-revolutionary" by Iranian state TV, IRIB, which broadcast part of the conference on 18 April 2000. Returning to Iran from the conference he was arrested on April 22, 2000, accused of having "damaged national security." Found guilty, in January 2001 he was sentenced to ten years followed by five years internal exile, which meant he would be kept in a specific city other than Tehran and could not leave the country. On 15 May 2001 an appeal court reduced his 10-year sentence to six months and overturned his additional sentence of five years' internal exile. However, the Tehran prosecutor, challenged the appeal court decision and brought new charges against him in connection with newspaper articles he had written prior to April 2000, and his possession of photocopies of foreign newspapers. On 16 July 2001 he was sentenced to six years imprisonment on charges of "collecting confidential information harmful to national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic system".
Like other political prisoners before him, Ganji took to writing from his prison cell. His political manifestos and open letters were smuggled out of jail and published on the internet, – two letters "to the free people of the world":.
In his last year in prison Ganji went on a hunger strike for more than 80 days from 19 May 2005 until early August 2005 except for a 12-day period of leave he was granted on May 30, 2005 ahead of the ninth presidential elections on 17 June 2005. His hunger strike ended after 50 days when "doctors warned he would sustain irreparable brain damage, and he relented." Many Iranians had not heard of the hunger strike due to press censorship and heavy security and information quarantine in Milad Hospital in Tehran. His hunger strike mobilized the international human rights community, "including eight former Nobel Peace laureates. Thousands of intellectuals and human rights activists around the world spoke out on his behalf. It is generally believed that the global support generated for Ganji during this period spared his life."
He was represented by a group of lawyers, including Dr. Yousef Molaei, Abdolfattah Soltani (who was arrested and put in solitary confinement in 2005 on unknown charges), and the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Shirin Ebadi.
In his recent leave in June 2005, Ganji participated in interviews with several news agencies, criticizing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, and asking for his office to be put to public vote . This led to a ruling by Saeed Mortazavi, the general prosecutor of Tehran, to arrest him again because of "illegal interviews". He returned to prison voluntarily on June 11, 2005 and started another hunger strike.
Ganji was released from prison in poor health on 18 March 2006, after serving the full term of his six-year sentence, according to his family and various count-downs set up on many Iranian weblogs. At the same time, the deputy prosecutor of Tehran, Mahmoud Salarkia, claimed that 10 days remained from his sentence due to unaccounted days of absence, and that he had been granted a leave for the Persian New Year. The claim has apparently been dropped since.
In June 2006 Ganji left Iran. Since then he has been writing and giving talks in Europe and North America, speaking out for the movement for democracy in Iran, and against any U.S. military attack on his country.
Ganji's writings in prison were smuggled out and widely distributed, especially on the web. Most notably he wrote a Republican Manifesto in six chapters in March 2002, laying out the basis of his proposal for a fully-fledged democratic republic for Iran. In particular he argued that all elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran must be boycotted. He later wrote a second book of his Republican Manifesto in May 2005, ahead of the ninth Presidential elections in Iran, specifically arguing for a complete boycott of the presidential elections.
In 2006, Akbar Ganji started a tour to visit world leading philosophers, theorists, human rights activists. His goal has been said to be introducing Iranian intellectual movements and democratic circles to world leading thinkers. He met many famous figures as Richard Rorty, Noam Chomsky, Anthony Giddens, David Held and Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt.
Despite repeated invitations he refused to meet with any member of the administration of US president George W. Bush, on the principle that the struggle for democracy in Iran must be waged from within the country, without foreign governmental support. to meet with White House officials, citing his belief that current US policies were not helping promote democracy in Iran. He was quoted as saying, "You cannot bring democracy to a country by attacking it". He also added that the war in Iraq was promoting Islamic fundamentalism and hurting movements towards democracy in the region.
Ganji declared that his role was as a dissident and journalist, rather than the official voice for a specific opposition party or faction within Iran, which he explained was one reason for his refusal to meet with US political leaders and officeholders.
During his visit he criticized the Iraq war, asserting that rather than undermining the current Iranian regime it had instead bolstered its capacity to repress and terrorize its population.
We do not want the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, this is our problem. Any intervention by any foreign power would bring charges of conspiracy against us... What has happened in Iraq did not support our movement in any significant way.
2009 election protests
Ganji has strongly supported the 2009 Iranian election protests. He staged a hunger strike outside of the United Nations headquarters in order to highlight the plight of Iranian political prisoners, and to bring international attention to the oppressive conditions felt within Iran.
Awards and honors
- PEN America, Honorary member (2000)
- Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, International Press Freedom Award (2000)
- The Middle East Studies Association of North America, MESA Academic Freedom Prize (2005)
- Press Freedom Award, Italy (2005)
- World Association of Newspapers, Golden Pen of Freedom (2006)
- Honorary citizen of the city of Florence, Italy (2006)
- Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (2006)
- National Press Club, John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award (2006)
- John Humphrey Freedom Award, Rights & Democracy (2007)
- Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty (2010)
- World Press Freedom Hero, International Press Institute (2010)
||This section of a biography of a living person does not include any references or sources. (February 2010)|
"I believe in a secular regime in which the institutions of religion and the institutions of the state are essentially separate, meaning: (1) the government is a human institution, not a heavenly one, (2) the government is responsible for enacting and executing customary, rational laws, not sharia rulings (3) spirituality doesn't have any special privileges in the state, and (4) the government is neutral towards all religions."  
"You cannot bring democracy to a country by attacking it."
"Negotiation talks are the best way to solve anything. We must replace wars and weapons with negotiations and talks."
"When there is a crisis, the first thing that gets damaged and gets harmed is democracy."
"When you face dangers and crises, civil liberties go down and security measures go up."
"The modern infrastructures that exist in the world all contribute to the advancement of human rights and democracy in the world. ... if the U.S. wants to contribute to the advancement of democracy in the Middle East, it can do that. The most important thing that the U.S. government can do is to help to solve the Arab/Israeli problem in a just way, and that is to create a Palestinian government, and the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslims alike, next to each other. The other thing is the reduction of the huge gap between the North and the South."
"We should put away the militaristic outlook. The U.S. should start talking about disarmament, nuclear disarmament, of the region."
"To people who live in democracies, I tell them to appreciate what they have. Don't attack democracy. Attack the governments that take advantage of democracy and try to divert democracy. Where you see a government choose policies that help the growth of fundamentalism, fight those policies. Human rights abuses are important anywhere, in Iran, in the U.S., in Israel, in Russia. It doesn't matter. We need peace."
"One of the features of a fascist regime is that it completely suppresses all civil society and creates a society with one voice, but it's only one of the characteristics of a fascist society. It's a system where you need to have a widespread political party. Culture is completely reduced to advertisements and propaganda, education is reduced to propaganda, and many other features in economy and politics. When you suppress civil society you reduce people to small particles and they become dissolved in a solution in the society. They have no characteristics of themselves, of their own." 
- Defenders of Human Rights Center
- History of political Islam in Iran
- Human rights in Islamic Republic of Iran
- 2nd of Khordad Movement
- Saeed Hajjarian
- Abdolkarim Soroush
- Abbas Amir-Entezam
- Mehrangiz Kar
- Akbar Ganji in conversation with Charles Taylor
- BBC News, 18 March 2006, Iranian dissident freed from jail
- Ebadi, Shirin, Iran Awakening, by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni, Random House, New York, 2006, p.193
- Prominent Iranian Journalist Receives Press Freedom Award In Moscow
- Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders
- Molavi, Afshin, The Soul of Iran, Norton, 2005, p.156
- UC Berkeley, CMES Newsletter. Spring 2007, Akbar Ganji visits Berkeley
- Iranmania, The Dissident Murders
- GANJI Iran Press Service, Dec 2000, IDENTIFIED FALLAHIAN AS THE "MASTER KEY" IN CHAIN MURDERS
- Letter to the Free People of the World, 1 July 2005
- Second Letter to the Free People of the World, 15 July 2005
- IFEX, 25 mai 2005, Imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji launches hunger strike
- Ebadi, Shirin, Iran Awakening, by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni, Random House New York, 2006, p.194
- 18 June 2005 Republican Manifesto II
- The Road to Democracy in Iran, The MIT Press
- Changing Iran: An Interview with Akbar Ganji, Boston Review
- BBC, 25 July 2006, Iran activist 'snubs White House'
- MSNBC, July. 16, 2006, Iran dissident says Iraq war not helping cause
- "John Humphrey Freedom Award 2009". Rights & Democracy. 2010. Retrieved 11 May 2011.
- "World Press Freedom Heroes: Symbols of courage in global journalism". International Press Institute. 2012. Retrieved 26 January 2012.
- Freedom is not free – Akbar Ganji’s website (under construction)
- CJFE Calls for Ganji's Release
- Ganji and other dissidents silenced ahead of elections, IFEX
- Ganji in hunger strike, Human Rights Watch: Leading Dissident’s Life in Danger.
- Iran: Radio Farda Interview With Dissident Akbar Ganji
- Second Letter written on the 30th day of hunger strike
- BBC profile
- Iran activist 'snubs White House' BBC article on Ganji declining a White House invitation
- Ganji's Next Strike Likely at U.N.
- The View from Tehran from May/June 2007 Boston Review
- Regime intelligence official admits to fabricating opposition figures August 13, 2007
- The US and the Plight of the Iranians – A letter to Ban Ki-moon published in the NY Review of Books (Volume 54, Number 18)
- Conversations with History, Islam and Democracy
- Changing Iran: May 2008 Interview with Akbar Ganji (interviewed by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Associate Editor of Boston Review Books)