"I am certain that this night of darkness will not last long. The moon of freedom will finally step out from behind the clouds of religious tyranny, and will shine rays of joy upon us all.” —Akbar Ganji's, in a letter written on July 22, 2005, his 43rd day of hunger strike in Iran’s Evin Prison.
He is a 46-year-old Iranian dissident and investigative journalist who has authored hundreds of articles, letters, and books challenging the legitimacy of the ruling clerics in Tehran. A champion of free-thinking, a particularly dangerous trade in Iran, he was jailed in 2000 for having the temerity to attend a conference in Berlin — where Iranian politics were freely discussed. Since his conviction in 2001 on trumped-up charges of treason and sedition, and his subsequent detention in the notorious Evin Prison, he has refused to become another faceless political prisoner of the mullahs. Instead, he has attacked the Iranian leadership—including former president Rafsanjani—in missives detailing the lengths to which they have gone to conceal their corruption and thuggery. Most recently, in June of 2005, he staged a hunger strike to protest the vicious and sadistic regime.
Akbar Ganji is exactly the kind of dissident that the world’s preeminent human rights organization, Amnesty International, purports to protect. And yet, Amnesty, the self-proclaimed flag bearer of all that is humane and just, has done nothing of substance to aid the suffering of the jailed dissident or to put pressure on his tormentors.
It is not for want of resources. Consider that one of Amnesty’s great strengths is its ability to foment media firestorms. Aided by a worldwide membership approaching 2 million and a pliant press usually too lazy to seek out less politically motivated human rights experts, Amnesty can bring serious media attention to almost any issue. In addition, Amnesty sports an army of high-powered press agents who use a veritable paper mill of press releases to regularly bombard news agencies. When the cause lines up with the organization’s political prejudices, such an infrastructure can pay off: A simple news search shows thousands of news articles prompted by Amnesty’s smear campaign against the Guantanamo Bay detention center in the past three months.
But Amnesty has refused to use its power to insert Ganji’s name into the greater media consciousness. Its efforts on his behalf have resulted in but a single newspaper article, in the UK’s Guardian. On August 3, the Guardian reported that Amnesty was indeed worried about Ganji’s deteriorating state—although that worry did not translate into anything more serious than a statement expressing just how worried the organization was. Ironically, that same day, Amnesty produced a much more sharply worded report that charged the U.S. with violating international law by running a worldwide “secret” prison network. The lengthy account, based on two Yemeni sources who offered no proof, and an anonymous figure in the Yemeni government, garnered over three dozen major news articles over the subsequent week. No such report was written about Ganji.
Yet Ganji’s case certainly merits the world’s attention. His exhortations from prison, calling for Supreme Leader Khamanei to step down, have served as the rallying point for the nascent democratic movement in Iran. In response, the government threatened Ganji’s family and his lawyers with arrest and prosecution, raiding his house and arresting his allies. To protest such treatment and the overall tyranny of the theocratic regime, Ganji began his hunger strike. Kept alive through intravenous feeding, Ganji adamantly refused to give in, even after weeks of fasting. There are late reports that, at the request of his family, Ganji has halted his protest after 78 days. While a symbolic victory for dissidents in Iran, Ganji remains in the hands of the mullahs, men whose penchant for brutality knows few bounds. Ganji tale, reminiscent of the trials of such Cold War-era dissidents Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Natan Sharansky, is remarkable.
But not remarkable enough for Amnesty International, it seems. To be sure, Amnesty is not alone in its disinclination to spotlight Ganji’s grim circumstances. Save for an occasional op-ed column, the mainstream media has largely been deaf to Ganji’s plight. As Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot recently pointed out, Natalee Holloway, the teen missing in Aruba, has garnered exponentially more coverage.
In Amnesty’s defense, then, it might be argued that it is really the media’s fault that the Ganji story has been insufficiently covered. But if one searches through the thousands of press releases and articles that Amnesty publishes every year, one will find only two recent press releases that address Ganji. The first, dated June 15, called for Ganji’s release, but gave no details on how this could be achieved or what actions concerned readers should take.
As Ganji’s hunger strike continued, Amnesty remained silent. In July, however, Amnesty did mention a “rumored” hunger strike. It centered on the tactics undertaken by Guantanamo inmates. Finally, 55 days into Ganji’s ordeal, Amnesty called for Ganji’s release in a press statement that was as skeletal as the first. There was no follow up, no detailed call to action, just a dry statement of the facts. This was the extent of Amnesty’s effort on behalf of a dissident who had been without food for almost eight weeks and was near death.
Even as Ganji’s condition has worsened, Amnesty has been engaged in extensive efforts against American anti-terrorist methods. A recent lead story on Amnesty’s website was its “expose” of the American detention system, which supposedly holds suspected terrorists. Online visitors can read the tens of thousands of words Amnesty has written on the subject over the past month, as well as access videos, pictures and the testimonials from men who say they were captured by American agents. Amnesty also provides a suite of contact options for readers, including a mechanism through which interested parties can reach high-ranking officials in several governments by mass e-mails. None of these options were made available to those interested in easing the plight of Ganji.
In its mission statement, Amnesty pledges to undertake “action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity.” They have certainly upheld this promise with regard to Guantanamo detainees, doing their utmost to free hundreds of Al-Qaeda suspects who regularly threaten guards with death and refuse to cooperate with American authorities. Their action on behalf of Ganji, the peaceful dissident, has been limited to a few paltry words of support.
How to account for Amnesty’s unwillingness to take up Ganji’s cause? Perhaps it lies in the fact that, unlike the staunchly anti-American population of Guantanamo Bay, Ganji is an opponent of a regime that President Bush once called “evil.” Moreover, as someone who speaks of freedom and liberty inside the Middle East, Ganji is hardly the kind of figure Amnesty’s well-healed coterie of leftist financial backers can rally around: Ganji seems worryingly sympathetic to the ambitions of the hated Bush administration, and supporting him could mean legitimizing its policies. Better to drone on about imaginary “gulags” at Guantanamo than risk saving the lives of heroes persecuted by tyrannical adversaries of the United States. Call it selective compassion.
Amnesty’s heartless inaction on behalf of Ganji has not gone unnoticed by other Iranian reformers. Ahmad Batebi, a prominent Iranian dissident, recently requested in a National Review interview that Amnesty International and similar groups step up their support for imprisoned Iranian activists. Unfortunately, such pleas have fallen on deaf ears.