Iranian reformist on trial accuses regime of torture

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Iran's most outspoken reformist journalist upstaged the prosecutor at his trial yesterday when he accused top officials of torture and blackmail.

Iran's most outspoken reformist journalist upstaged the prosecutor at his trial yesterday when he accused top officials of torture and blackmail.

Akbar Ganji appeared in court in connection with a controversial conference he attended with other Iranian reformists in Berlin in April. But instead of defending himself against grave charges that included "anti-national activities" and "insulting Islam", Mr Ganji went on the offensive.

First, he told the court that he had been tortured and kept in solitary confinement for more than three of the seven months he has been behind bars pending trial. Then he accused officials from Iran's feared intelligence ministry of threatening to have him imprisoned if he refused to call off his journalistic campaign to expose top-level state complicity in the alleged murders of scores of dissidents.

The incident happened, Mr Ganji told the court, in March when he was summoned to the intelligence ministry, where an official had told him to limit severely his inquiries into the murders and to avoid implicating senior officials. Mr Ganji said he was threatened with a lengthy jail sentence if he refused to comply.

"I said no," Mr Ganji said. "When I asked the official who was responsible for this decision, he told me it had been taken by a group which included members of the judiciary."

Iran's conservative-minded judiciary has been at the forefront of a relentless campaign to muzzle the reformist press that arose after the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997.

According to Mr Ganji, his meeting with the official had been preceded by a meeting on the same subject between Ali Younesi, the Intelligence Minister, and Saeed Hajarian, a former intelligence ministry official and close associate of the President. According to Mr Ganji's testimony, Mr Younesi told Mr Hajarian that his ministry was under "severe pressure" to prevent Mr Ganji from continuing his campaign. Mr Hajarian was instructed: "Tell Ganji to give up."

Mr Ganji refused. Mr Hajarian, who is rumoured to know who masterminded the murders, may have paid the heaviest price. The day after Mr Ganji's alleged interview with the official, Mr Hajarian was shot and almost killed by an Islamic militant on a motorcycle.

Mr Ganji's revelations will fuel speculation Mr Hajarian was attacked because of what he knew about the murders, originally thought to number four. It was Mr Ganji who enraged conservatives by suggesting publicly that some 80 murders had been committed, most of them during the tenure of a former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Partly as a result of Mr Ganji's critical journalism, Mr Rafsanjani struggled to win a seat in the parliamentary elections in February.

Mr Ganji was among 17 reformist journalists, writers and politicians who were arrested on their return to Iran from the Berlin conference, which was organised by an affiliate of Germany's Green Party, and was disrupted by protests against Iran's Islamic regime. The trial of the Iranian participants in the conference has been denounced as a sham.

Certainly, Mr Ganji does not recognise its validity. "The decision to send me to jail was taken in March and since then they have been looking for an excuse." From the moment he entered the courtroom yesterday, it was clear Mr Ganji was determined to make up for the months of enforced silence. As he was led in by three soldiers, he shouted, "they tortured me", before giving a victory salute to reporters and defiantly stripping off his grey prison jacket.

The trial continues.