TEHRAN, Iran, AP -Iran’s most senior dissident journalist was freed after completing a six-year prison sentence, his lawyer said Saturday.
Akbar Ganji was jailed in 2000 after reporting on murders of five dissidents by Intelligence Ministry agents and became a hero to the country’s reformists for standing up to hard-line clerics.
Many world leaders, including President Bush and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, called for Ganji’s release because of his deteriorating health, but Iran’s hard-line authorities rejected the demands. Ganji spent most of his jail term in solitary confinement and was on hunger strike for months.
“Ganji was freed late Friday after spending about six years in jail,” his lawyer Yousef Mowlaei told The Associated Press.
A statement by Iran’s judiciary said Ganji was freed on leave for Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday, which begins Tuesday. The holiday runs until April 3, and the statement said his prison sentence officially ends March 30, so it appeared unlikely Ganji would be taken back into custody.
Ganji, 46, was sentenced to six years in prison on charges that the articles he wrote violated the law and insulted the authorities.
Ganji came to prominence after his investigation of the 1998 murders of five dissidents by Intelligence Ministry agents.
The Intelligence Ministry blamed the murders on “rogue agents” within the secret service. But Ganji’s articles in the newspapers Sobh-e-Emrouz, Khordad and Fath said the killings were ordered by senior hard-liners in the ruling Islamic establishment, including former hard-line Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian. Fallahian has denied any involvement.
Ganji’s imprisonment coincided with a massive media crackdown by hard-liners against the reformist press when former President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist agenda was threatening the power of the unelected hard-liners.
Iran’s hard-line judiciary has closed down more than 100 pro-democracy publications in the past five years, including the papers Ganji wrote for, on vague charges of insulting religious sanctities and top clerics.
In his writings, Ganji said Iran needs to stop granting absolute rule to a top cleric, currently supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.