Top Iranian dissident visits US, seeking release of political prisoners

Akbar Ganji, 47, in the midst of a world tour to raise awareness of human rights violations in Iran.

Akbar Ganji 88 (photo credit: )
Akbar Ganji 88
(photo credit: )
A top Iranian journalist and activist recently released from prison said Sunday the war in Iraq has only hurt the democracy movement in Iran, and that until control of oil revenue is wrested from state hands, there will be no democratic nations in the Middle East.
Akbar Ganji, 47, in the midst of a world tour to raise awareness of human rights violations in Iran, arrived in the US to join protesters gathering outside the UN building who were on a symbolic three-day hunger strike aimed at forcing the Iranian regime to release political prisoners.
He is also hoping to spark the democratic movement in Iran by enlisting the help of the West.
"In the Middle East and the world of Islam at large, there are two voices present: one voice is the voice of religious fundamentalism, war and terrorism," Ganji told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview. "And the West is only listening to this faction."
The second voice, he said, is that of political and economic liberalism.
Ganji was initially a strong supporter of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. But as the despotic nature of the regime grew, he began to criticize the government, both in newspaper articles and books.
He was imprisoned in 2000 after writing a series of articles accusing Intelligence Ministry agents of killing dissidents.
Ganji says he was tortured repeatedly during six years in prison. He engaged in two hunger strikes during his time in jail, including one that lasted until his release from prison this past March that left him weighing less than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) and his health in shambles.
On Sunday, Ganji - still slight after gaining back about 36 pounds (16 kilograms) - looked energetic, despite taking part in the three-day fast. He spent the afternoon darting between journalists and fellow protesters, taking time to pose for photos with children and generally direct the day's activities.
The hunger strikes - organized by dissident groups around the globe - are being held in 15 cities worldwide, including Paris, London, Istanbul, Tehran and Los Angeles, Ganji said.
Since his release from prison, he has toured Europe, collected the World Association of Newspapers' Gold Pen of Freedom award in Moscow in June, and on Monday will travel to Washington to collect an award from the National Press Club for his fearless writing - which he continued even while imprisoned.
"My goal during my world tour is to show the world that there is an alternative, there is another voice in the region," he said. "That's the voice of peacefulness, liberty, human rights and a democratic Islam."
As opposed to Iraq, Ganji said, the best weapon the West can use to promote democracy in Iran is that of lending moral support to the democratic movement within the country.
"We do not want the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, this is our problem. Any intervention by any foreign power would bring charges of conspiracy against us," he said. "What has happened in Iraq did not support our movement in any significant way."
Rather, he said, it gave Iran's regime an excuse to crackdown on dissidents, accusing them of colluding with the US and promoting an invasion of the country.
Beyond Iran, Ganji said that stopping terrorism and promoting democracy in the Middle East essentially comes down to economics: closing the poverty gap between the North and the South and getting control of oil revenues into citizens' hands.
"Oil is the greatest factor that prevents democracy to take root in the region. Petroleum states have no need for their people," he said. "They do not depend on taxation and therefore there is no accountability to the people."
Poverty, he said, is the root cause of terrorism, as the poor see no way out of their situation, become disillusioned, "and this disillusionment brings about resentment and violence, aggression and hate."
Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of Iran's Parliament, took part in the hunger strike Sunday. She said that since conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the presidency last August, the political situation in Iran has only gotten worse.
"Since the radical group has taken power, the political situation is getting tighter and worse," she said. "But with support from international civil institutions, we can open up the political atmosphere."
Haghighatjoo - who resigned from parliament in 2004 as hard-liners began to crackdown and is now a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - said Ganji's release from prison and his continued outspokenness has helped bolster Iran's democracy activists.
"Mr. Ganji is the symbol of our movement now," she said.