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Iranian reporter's cry for freedom

RECENT PICTURES of Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji circulating on Internet websites have shown him looking skeletal and unconscious. He has been on a hunger strike for the past 61 days, and, according to his wife, is being guarded day and night by plainclothes police who share shifts in his hospital room in Tehran. She said that authorities recently took the precaution of removing everyone else from the hospital floor where his room is located.

His lawyers have been banned from visiting him since June 17, and the police have kept his wife away from his bedside since Aug. 1.

Doctors say Ganji is close to death. All he has been asking for is his freedom. After being held for more than five years in the squalid Evin prison, he is petitioning his judges and the government to be unconditionally released from jail.

As members of Reporters Without Borders, we wrote to him on Monday asking him to stop his hunger strike. ''We don't want to lose one of the noblest and most powerful voices," we told him. ''By focusing everyone's attention on your hospital bed, you have forced the world to look squarely at Iran's suffering."

Ganji is serving a six-year prison sentence for investigating the murders of Iranian dissidents in the late 1990s. The publication of his articles came as a bombshell, as they directly implicated top-ranking government officials. The judges of a ''revolutionary tribunal" initially sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Iran's Supreme Court quashed this conviction, but judges allied with Tehran State Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi managed to uphold it.

The Islamic Republic's ultraconservatives now control all the mechanisms of power in Iran. They have shown Ganji no mercy in the past. According to his lawyers, he was tortured, and they were forbidden to visit him most of the time. His wife fears that ''They will continue to deny him mercy. He stands for everything they hate. They will let him die one inch at a time."

Aware that Ganji could become a martyr for Iran's pro-democracy press, the ultraconservatives are trying to manipulate the international media. They have accused Ganji of being ''suicidal," ''extremist," refusing to sign a release request, and a tool of the United States.

In a press conference on July 28, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami criticized the journalist's ''obstinacy" in continuing his hunger strike, declaring, ''We were expecting Mr. Ganji to stop his hunger strike and to obey the demands of the judicial authority, but he refused to do so." He added, ''He must be reasonable."

Under Iranian law, Ganji should have been released two years ago. The courts refused. And how could Ganji sign or negotiate anything when one of his lawyers, Abdolfattah Soltani, was arrested on July 30 in Tehran? European diplomats fear that the threats could even extend to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, who is also one of his lawyers.

Statements by President Bush in support of Ganji have joined the many calls for his release in Europe. Fourteen Nobel laureates have signed a petition for his freedom.

The Iranian regime recently suggested that there was a link between the Ganji affair and the murder of an ultraconservative judge, Massoud Moqadasi. Since when have pro-democracy intellectuals been murdering Islamic judges on the streets of Tehran? Without urgent intervention, Ganji is going to die -- pushed along by the government.

Robert Menard is secretary-general and Reza Moeni is an Iranian researcher for Reporters Without Borders.

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