Iran frees prominent dissident

TEHRAN (AFP) — Iran’s most prominent political prisoner, dissident Akbar Ganji, was released late Friday night after six years in prison.Visibly thinner and sporting a bushy beard, Ganji smiled and greeted family and friends Saturday but refused to make any comments.

“He was released at the end of his term,” Ganji’s lawyer Yusef Molai said.

“To my surprise, prison officials brought him home at 10 last night. I did not expect it as the papers said he would not be released before March 30. I am extremely happy,” his wife Massoumeh Shafie said.

“I have asked him not to talk because I am very worried and do not want the same thing to happen again,” she added.

She denied there was any gag order on the fiery journalist and worried about his health after his gruelling stay behind bars.

“He has decided not to talk due to his physical conditions. He should not get tired,” Molai explained.

Ganji, 46, was 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.

He did not give names, and instead kept readers guessing over the identity of the “Master Key” and the “Grey Eminence” — but the nicknames were widely interpreted as referring to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former intelligence minister Ali Fallahian.

In 2005, Ganji, who for many symbolised the fighting spirit of Iran’s reform movement, denied having made any reference to Rafsanjani in his articles.

The uproar over the serial murders prompted official action, with the killings blamed on “rogue” intelligence agents. The alleged ringleader eventually committed suicide in jail by drinking hair remover.

Reformists rejoiced at the news of Ganji’s freedom even as the dissident returned to an Iran that was far more conservative than the one he left when he started his prison sentence.

“One of my best friends has been released,” said dissident cleric Mohsen Kadivar, who had come to welcome Ganji at his modest Tehran apartment, two days before the Iranian new year Nohrouz.

Kadivar, who was himself jailed in 1999 for championing greater independence for the government from the clergy, defended his friend.

“Prison is not the right solution for political critics. Despite serving six years, Ganji has not changed but he has become more radical,” Kadivar said.

“His silence will not last long but he has to examine the situation and he has to speak in a manner that can be published.”

Ganji, who was first jailed in 1997 after giving a lecture on “the theoretical foundations of fascism,” was arrested a final time in April 2000 following his participation in an academic and cultural conference at the Heinrich Boell Institute in Berlin.

Iranian state television aired footage of the conference, which included debates on social and political reforms and interruptions by Iranian exiled dissidents slamming the clerical regime.

The conference drew the ire of conservatives and many angry demonstrations were organised in Qom — the religious epicentre of the country — and other cities against the “counterrevolutionaries” who had attended the forum.

He was sentenced in 2001 to 10 years in prison, but the sentence was later commuted to six.

During his prison stint, Ganji spent long periods in solitary confinement and reportedly suffered from chronic asthma.

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