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In the world of celebrity dissidents, Akbar Ganji may be Iran’s most famous. A slight man with a tuft of hair atop a mostly bald head, he is perhaps best known for the seventy-three-day hunger strike he endured in 2005, near the end of his six-year detention in Tehran’s hilltop Evin Prison. Ganji was born in 1960, and like many men and women of his generation, he agitated against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from a tender age. After serving in the young Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard during the grueling Iran-Iraq war, he served as an attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Turkey, where, among other things, he was encouraged to spy on restive Iranian students in Ankara. But as he journeyed deeper into Iran’s political interior, Ganji grew increasingly disenchanted with what this new Islamic Republic had become. The values for which the revolutionaries had ostensibly fought, from freedom of thought and expression to the freedom to participate in fair and transparent elections, had been smothered. More and more, this regime made it clear that it would not tolerate critics.
Ganji eventually left government and became a journalist. By the mid-1990s he was publishing courageous investigative essays in reformist newspapers, Kiyan and Sobh-e Emrooz the most prominent among them, about the excesses, financial and otherwise, of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s regime. Most notable were Ganji’s dispatches about a series of ghastly murders of dissident intellectuals during the presidency of Rafsanjani’s successor, the incongruously smile-prone and mild-mannered Mohammad Khatami; Ganji’s reporting eventually implicated high-ranking officials within the Ministry of Intelligence and other security agencies.
The state Ganji had once defended with his life locked him up in Evin in 2000 on multiple charges, ranging from spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic to endangering national security. By the fifth year of his sentence, Ganji was penning what he called letters “to the free people of the world.” In the second of these letters, dated July 2005, he referred to the country’s all-powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who is more or less elected for life, as a sultan, urging him to step down and calling for a new, secular constitution. That same year, Ganji began his stubborn hunger strike, and soon enough images of the rail-thin prisoner on the brink of a premature death, his eyes rolled back into their lids, landed in e-mail accounts worldwide–including my own. His plight was taken up by various crusaders from the international human rights movement, while the coiners of the phrase “axis of evil” anointed him a hero (“America stands by you,” at least one Bush-era White House press release declared). Having served his prison sentence, Ganji left Iran in 2006–supposedly for a short trip. He has not returned, instead joining the growing ranks of Iranian dissidents based in think-tank havens like Washington, DC.