Dissident Iranian leads hunger strike for political prisoners

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The Independent Online

They have vanished behind the high walls of Tehran's notorious Evin prison after being jailed without trial and with no charges being laid. They include a union leader who organised a bus strike, a student activist, and an internationally-respected philosopher. Now they are about to receive a powerful message of support from Iran's best-known dissident, Akbar Ganji, who will launch a campaign in London on Friday for the release of all Iranian political prisoners.

Mr Ganji, who has been muzzled by official media since his release from jail four months ago, knows he is risking detention on his return to Iran, and possibly worse, by urging his supporters who dream of Iran becoming a secular democracy to join him in a three-day hunger strike.

"My friends are not concerned about me getting detained. They are concerned about my assassination," he told the Independent. "It is the first time the internal and external opposition are cooperating on one thing. There has been nothing like this in the past 27 years."

The best-selling investigative journalist is no stranger to hunger strikes. He refused food for a total two months while serving a six-year sentence in Evin jail, after writing a book and articles linking senior officials, including former president Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, to the serial murders of political dissidents in the late 1990s. His revelations prompted President Mohammed Khatami to purge the intelligence services.

From jail, he published a political "manifesto" in 2002. He was released last March, after serving most of his sentence, and after world leaders including President George Bush called for his release.

Mr Ganji, who says he was tortured in Evin, estimates that the number of political prisoners in Iran is around 50. But he has chosen to highlight three as a symbol in order to demand the release of them all. They are union leader Mansour Ossanlu, who has been detained without charge or trial since 22 December 2005 for organising the bus strike during which hundreds of workers were detained; student leader Mousawi Khomeini; and Ramin Jahanbegloo, a pro-democracy philosopher who was arrested in April to the consternation of his family and his profession.

Like 47-year-old Mr Ganji, professor Jahanbegloo advocates a non-violent path to freedom and democracy, a view which has earned the prominent intellectual a place in Evin jail on suspicion of espionage.

Mr Ganji will begin his fast in Trafalgar Square on Friday, before flying to New York where he will continue his hunger strike outside the UN mission of the Islamic Republic on Saturday and Sunday. In New York, he will meet a prominent Bush administration critic and leading intellectual Noam Chomsky - but no-one from the US administration, which has pledged $75m to support the Iranian opposition.

He says more than 1,000 people across Europe and inside Iran have signed a petition in support of the Iranian prisoner release so far. "There is a large democratic movement in Iran, which rejects violence. We don't want a revolution, we want to try to change the regime peacefully," he says.

The hunger strike will be a litmus test of the strength of the pro-democracy movement in Iran, which suffers from a lack of organisation and credible leadership. "We have to organise our movement, this organisation has to have a strategy of civil disobedience," he said.

Political repression has intensified since the election of President Mohamed Ahmadinejad in June last year which consolidated the power of the conservatives in government. Mr Ganji has given thousands of interviews since emerging from prison, but not a single word has been published in Iran. So the internet has become the medium of choice to unite the disparate opposition to the mullahs.

But Mr Ganji stresses that he is not an opposition leader and rejects comparisons with other former political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. "I am trying to raise the voice of pacifism, and democracy and freedom," he says. "I believe in a secular state, where there is no state religion and no religious state, and which would recognise sexual equality and minority rights."

Mr Ganji advocates a strategy of civil disobedience, building on the impact of a bus strike last January and of a women's protest which was similarly broken up by Iranian police.

Like Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who was his lawyer while he was in jail, Mr Ganji is calling for a revision of the constitution as a first step to reform. But he is also under no illusions that it will happen.

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