March 18, 2006

Iran’s top dissident released from jail

By Saeed Komeijani

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's most prominent political
dissident, Akbar Ganji, has been released from prison after six
years behind bars for criticizing some of the most powerful
figures in the Islamic Republic.

Ganji, a journalist, was jailed in 2000 after writing
articles linking senior officials to the serial killings of
political dissidents in 1998.

His articles particularly targeted powerful cleric Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president from 1989 to 1997.

A cheerful but thin and heavily-bearded Ganji welcomed
reporters into his Tehran apartment. He stuck to pleasantries
and sidestepped politics.

"Thanks for coming," he said, grinning. "I am so sorry it
is such a small place."

Lawyer Youssef Mowlaie told Reuters Ganji had been released
late on Friday evening. He predicted a legal wrangle over
whether Ganji would have to return to Tehran's feared Evin
prison for a few more days.

Mowlaie said he reckoned his client's jail term ended on
March 17, but a senior judiciary figure disagreed.

"Currently, he is on leave and his sentence will end on
March 30," Mahmoud Salarkia, deputy prosecutor-general for
prison affairs, told the official IRNA news agency.

Salarkia said Ganji was allowed to return home for seven
days to celebrate the Iranian New Year holiday which starts on
Monday night. However, Ganji's wife insisted her husband was
staying at home for good.

Ganji spent stints in solitary confinement and fell gravely
ill in July, weakened by a hunger strike aimed at persuading
authorities to release him. The reporter's case sparked outrage
from the United States and European Union.

Ganji, born in 1959, was a devoted follower of the 1979
Islamic revolution and served in the hardline Revolutionary
Guards. He has been criticized for his propaganda work and his
surveillance of Iranian student activities in Turkey.

However, his political views changed sharply and his
letters from prison broke two of Iran's biggest taboos, both
criticizing the system of clerical rule and leveling personal
attacks on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

(Additional reporting by Alireza Ronaghi)