WASHINGTON - As Tehran University students clashed with police in Iran yesterday during demonstrations demanding the release of political prisoners, President Bush, from Washington, joined the growing movement calling for the release of dissident journalist Akbar Ganji.
"The President calls on all supporters of human rights and freedom, and the United Nations, to take up Ganji's case and the overall human rights situation in Iran," a statement released by the White House yesterday read. Calls for comment to U.N. spokesmen were unreturned at press time last night.
"The President also calls on the Government of Iran to release Mr. Ganji immediately and unconditionally and to allow him access to medical assistance."
Mr. Ganji's wife, Massoumeh Shafii, yesterday told reporters that her husband would continue his hunger strike - now in its second month - until he is released unconditionally. Mr. Ganji, who was initially arrested in 2001, was sent back to Evin prison on June 11 after he violated the terms of his medical leave and gave an interview urging his fellow citizens to boycott last month's presidential election.
"After 31 days of hunger strike, Ganji has a very good morale and wishes to continue his action," Ms. Shafii told the semi-official Ilna news agency after meeting her husband at Evin, according to Agence France-Presse. "He is demanding his unconditional release and believes the only way to secure this is by continuing his hunger strike. He says he will only eat when he is unconditionally freed."
The New York Sun on July 6 ran an editorial asking Mr. Bush to speak to Mr. Ganji's detention at a conference of the group of eight industrialized nations in Scotland after a letter from the imprisoned journalist was smuggled out of Evin prison and published on a number of opposition Web sites.
In the letter Mr. Ganji addressed to all "free peoples," he said he had lost more than 40 pounds on his hunger strike, a diet that has consisted of water and sugar cubes. Mr. Ganji was arrested in 2001 for publishing a book called "The Red Eminence." In it, he tied his country's political leaders, including a former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to a series of murders of prominent critics of the regime in the late 1990s.
Two administration officials yesterday told The New York Sun that Mr. Bush did not broach the subject of Mr. Ganji's status as a political prisoner at the G-8 meeting in Gleneagles. Both officials said that the writer was discussed in lower-level groups charged with tackling joint Iran policy. The European Union Sunday formally urged the "Iranian authorities to free [Mr. Ganji] immediately on humanitarian grounds."
While Mr. Ganji's case has attracted little attention here, in Iran he is emerging as a symbol of the country's democratic opposition. According to Reuters, 150 demonstrators yesterday clashed with riot police when a protest to release Mr. Ganji turned violent. Opposition groups have reported that participants in the Tehran rally numbered in the thousands, including a California-based satellite television station, IranNTV.
An e-mail translated into English announcing the rally, which was sponsored by the Student Committee for the Freedom of Political Prisoners, also called for the release of Nasser Zarafshan, Arjang Davoudi, Heshmat Tabarzadi, Bina Daaraab-Zand, Khaaled Hardaani, Hodjat Zamaani, Behrouz Jaaveed-Tehrani, Mojtaba Samiinejad, Manouchehr Mohammadi, Mehrdad Lohrasbi, Abbass Deldaar, Mariam Araii, and Kobra Rahmanpour.
That the demonstration proceeded yesterday was itself important in the aftermath of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in the presidential election last month. Mr. Ahmadinejad has served as mayor of Tehran and commander for intelligence for a branch of the revolutionary guard that carried out overseas assassinations against the Islamic Republic's opponents. The Austrian government last week announced that it would begin evaluating new evidence from a member of its parliament to determine whether Mr. Ahmadinejad played a role in the 1989 assassination of the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Rahman Ghassemlou.
Until yesterday, the ascendance of Mr. Ahmadinejad, beloved by the pro-regime religious militia the Basij, seemed to pose too great a risk for Iran's restless democratic opposition to express their distaste for the government in Iran's streets. On the anniversary of the 1999 Tehran University uprisings, for example, hardly any protests took place in the country as they have in the past on July 9.
"Ganji is a very brave man who is widely respected in Iranian circles by those who may disagree with his political program," an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Patrick Clawson, said yesterday. "I think it takes a brave soul these days to demonstrate in Iran, given the heavy-handed role the Basij played in the election and the prospect of them playing an even more heavy-handed role in everyday life. You should not judge Iranian demonstrations by the numbers from six years ago. The expectation in 1999 was that the authorities would be benign if not supportive, whereas today the expectation is the authorities will be vicious or worse."