Iranian President intervenes in bid to end jailed journalist's hunger strike

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The Independent Online

Mohammed Khatami, the outgoing pro-reform President, "is trying to help - we are trying our best", said Hamidreza Assefi, the Deputy Foreign Minister, during a visit to London yesterday. He added that the government was working with the Iranian judiciary which is reviewing the case of the journalist, who was taken to hospital last week after 45 days of continuous hunger strike.

Fears are growing that Mr Ganji, a best-selling investigative journalist, could be only days from death after his wife said he was in a "very grave situation". But Mr Assefi said yesterday he had eaten pistachios and bananas, and "his physical condition is getting better".

Because of his high profile, the Ganji case has gained international resonance. His supporters, including President George Bush, the European Union and the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, are calling for his unconditional release. But Mr Assefi warned: "Foreign intervention may complicate this case."

The country's new hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may even become involved after he takes office next week, but so far he has not made any statement about what could be his first major headache.

The head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, has suggested Mr Ganji could be pardoned for the remaining six months of his sentence. Mr Ganji, who once worked for the intelligence services, was sentenced to six years in 2000 after writing articles linking senior officials to the murder of five political dissidents in the late 1990s.

In November 2000, during his trial, he publicly named some of those accused of the killings, including a former intelligence minister. His revelations prompted President Khatami to purge the intelligence services. Mr Ganji has continued to be a thorn in the government's side from prison, publishing a political "manifesto" in 2002. He was freed for medical reasons five weeks ago, but was rearrested days later after calling for a boycott of the Iranian presidential elections. In Jail, he began his hunger strike on 11 June.

Because of his national prominence, Mr Ganji's case is extremely sensitive in Iran, although it has had some coverage in the official media. But when police broke up a demonstration by his supporters at the university two weeks ago, local reporters were warned not to cover the story.

On Monday, in a letter smuggled from hospital, Mr Ganji said that "if Ganji dies in any way, his killer will be Mr Khamenei", referring to Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr Ganji said he had been told by the hardline Tehran prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, who visited him in hospital, that the religious establishment would be pleased to see him dead. But he said Mr Mortazavi wanted him to die in hospital, rather than in prison, to lessen the public outcry.

Mr Assefi's visit to London appeared to be part of a charm offensive aimed at soothing Western fears that the government about to take power under Mr Ahmadinejad would adopt radically different policies.