‘Icon of Resistance’

Akbar Ganji, Grant Awarded 1999

Akbar Ganji, then Iran’s most famous political prisoner, received us a day after his release in March 2006. He smiled warmly, but a lengthy hunger strike had turned him almost unrecognizable, frail and bony, with a heavy beard. “I need time to recuperate,” he told us, dozens of activists and journalists who had rushed to his Tehran home. One of them, the student leader Abdulah Momeni, told me simply, “He is an icon of resistance.”

A cell in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. Courtesy International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran
A cell in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. Courtesy International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran

Ganji had served a six-year sentence for accusing government officials of playing a role in the assassination of some 80 dissidents and intellectuals. We had expected his release, but the actual event arrived unannounced: prison authorities abruptly dropped him at his home with all his belongings.

Ganji’s transformation gave his case a special resonance. He had supported the 1979 revolution and served in the hard-line Revolutionary Guards, but his views evolved. Even after his book on the government’s role in the assassinations landed him in Evin prison in April 2000, the authorities never managed to silence him. His writings were smuggled out of prison and circulated widely on the Internet. Ganji became especially popular among university students for his manifesto laying out a secular, republican system for the country.

Three months after his release, Ganji left Iran. Now 55, he lives in New York City and remains a vocal critic of the Iranian regime, but his health never fully recovered. “I am almost handicapped with all sorts of health issues,” he said in a recent interview. “Prison took its toll.”

Nazila Fathi is a former New York Times correspondent in Tehran and the author of The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran.

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