March 18, 2006

Iran’s leading dissident freed from jail

By Saeed Komeijani

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

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

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

A smiling but thin and heavily-bearded Ganji welcomed
reporters into his Tehran apartment.

He stuck to pleasantries and sidestepped politics. "Thanks
for coming," he said. "I am so sorry it is such a small place."

Lawyer Youssef Mowlaie told Reuters Ganji was freed late on
Friday. He predicted a legal wrangle over whether Ganji would
be returned to Tehran's feared Evin prison for a few more days.

Mowlaie said he reckoned Ganji's jail term ended on March
17, but a senior judiciary official 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 a week
to mark the Iranian New Year holiday which starts on Monday
night, but Ganji's wife insisted her husband was home for good.

Iran rejected Ganji's allegations that senior officials
were responsible for the dissidents' killings, blaming "rogue
elements" within the Intelligence Ministry.

Nine agents received prison terms. The ring-leader died in
jail after drinking hair-remover in what court officials said
was a suicide.

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)