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2006-08-30

"We Don’t Want War"–Leading Iranian Dissident and Former Political Prisoner Akbar Ganji

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Renowned Iranian investigative journalist and dissident Akbar Ganji discusses why he recently declined an invitation to the meet with President Bush in the White House. Recently released from prison, Ganji discusses human rights abuses in Iran, the nuclear issue and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rise to power. [includes rush transcript]

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has issued a new challenge to President Bush–a televised debate. On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad said he would like to debate Bush about "world affairs" and the ways to solve them. Ahmadinejad’s comments come ahead of the UN’s deadline Thursday for Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment.

The White House dismissed the idea of a debate, describing it as a diversion from concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Well, as Bush refused the Iranian president’s invitation to a debate, today we turn to an Iranian dissident who refused Bush’s invitation to the White House. Akbar Ganji is a renowned Iranian activist and investigative journalist. He recently visited Democracy Now!’s firehouse studio in the midst of his month-long world tour to raise awareness about human rights violations in Iran. His visit came just months following his release from an Iranian jail where he was imprisoned for nearly six years.

Akbar also used his time in the United States to speak out against human rights abuses in Iran. He took part in a three-day hunger strike outside of the UN aimed at forcing the Iranian government to release political prisoners. But he also carried a message for the Bush administration. Ganji declined a personal invitation to the White House to meet with top U.S officials overseeing Iran policy. I began by asking Akbar Ganji why he declined the offer. The conversation was translated by Hossein Kamaly.

  • Akbar Ganji, Iranian dissident and investigative journalist. (translated by Hossein Kamaly)

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we turn to an Iranian dissident who refused Bush’s invitation to the White House. Akbar Ganji is a renowned Iranian activist and investigative journalist, recently visited Democracy Now!’s Firehouse studio in the midst of this month-long world tour to raise awareness about human rights violations in Iran. His visit came just months following his release from an Iranian jail where he was imprisoned for nearly six years, imprisoned and tortured.

Akbar also used his time in the U.S. to speak out against human rights abuses in Iran. He took part in a three-day hunger strike outside of the UN, aimed at forcing the Iranian government to release political prisoners. But he also carried a message for the Bush administration. Yes, he declined that personal invitation to the White House to meet with top U.S. officials overseeing Iran policy.

This is part two of our interview with Akbar Ganji. I asked him why he declined the White House offer. Our conversation was translated by Hossein Kamaly.

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] As I mentioned before, Amy, I don’t think this can help in any way our democratic movement. Our first demand and our first concern is to make sure that there is not going be a military invasion against our country. We do not want war. I say these things, and I appreciate your making it available and broadcasting it. They hear what I say, and if they are really interested in peace, they will not invade. Always in a negotiation, there’s a give and take. And I have nothing to offer to the President. I’m an intellectual. What can I offer him? If there are negotiations, it must take place between the government of Iran and the government of the United States, and it must be a transparent negotiation.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned if Iran develops nuclear weapons?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] More than that, I’m concerned about the possibility of a disaster like what happened in Chernobyl. What Iran has acquired has been through black market. And we don’t know anything about the security and the safety of this project. Should there be an explosion, should there be a catastrophe, the environment, the ecosystem and the people will be destroyed.

It’s not the West that is confronted with the possibility of a nuclear Iran, an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon, but it’s the people of Iran faced with a potential disaster like a Chernobyl. And also I should say that the policies of the West, in this regard, are fundamentally — it’s fundamentally a dual standard. They disregard the atomic weapons, atomic bombs, available to Israel, Pakistan and India, but Iran is said not to have the right to enrich uranium.

Of course, I find the policies of the Islamic Republic fundamentally unwise. We should strive to disarm internationally, for an international disarmament. We have to fight the militarization of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a country, Akbar Ganji, that you think is dealing with Iran correctly, in a constructive way?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] Well, that’s another issue to talk about: the government of Iran vis-a-vis Western governments. Both sides are at fault in this issue. The Iranian regime, by adopting, through adopting wrong policies has created a consensus against itself. You know that there was a disagreement, fundamental chasm between Europe and the United States over the question of Iraq. But in Iran, because of the unwise positions taken by our government, there is an international consensus against us.

On the other hand, the fear, the concern, is there with the Iranian people that the West is just looking for a false reason to invade Iran anyway, regardless of what they do. The best way we can think of to stop this is to promote and to call for a direct negotiation and transparent negotiation between the two sides, negotiations about peace. Our concern is about the violation of human rights and the establishment of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: You were arrested in Iran. You had exposed during the Khamenei regime the killings of many dissidents. You were held for six years. Were you tortured in prison, just recently released?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] I was gravely mistreated. But it’s not only me. It’s a matter of dozens, scores of prisoners who are treated in the worst conceivable way. I have always tried to be their voice. I was lucky enough to be well known in the world. However, there are numerous people in prison in Iran, but their names are unknown, even to the people in Iran, within Iran. They are kept in solitary confinement on no grounds. No access to books, newspapers or telephone. No attorney present, no legal representation. And they are deprived of meeting with their families. And they are under pressure to confess to charges of espionage. They bring them in front of camera in the same way Stalin used to do and make them confess. And they will convict them to prison, sentence them, give them sentences based on those television shows. We object to this process.

AMY GOODMAN: Do they broadcast these so-called confessions on television in Iran?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] Yes, they do. Yes, they beat them up in prison and then bring them in front of camera, and they confess to crimes they have never committed.

AMY GOODMAN: Akbar Ganji, were you beaten up?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] I had similar problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they broadcast your so-called confession?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] I never went to any show. I never withdrew my position, from what I put forward. My positions that I advocated from prison were far more radical from what I had said before going to prison. The harsher they treated me, I became more radicalized. But I have no personal problems with anyone, and I have no personal complaints. Our problem is democracy. Our concern is democracy, human rights and freedom in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you, Akbar Ganji, give us the landscape of the pro-democracy movement in Iran? Who makes it up?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] First of all, we have a strong class of intellectuals. And our intellectuals, this strong class, demands democracy. Secondly, we have a large younger generation, and the structure of the population in Iran has a large youth population, and that part of the population, that segment of the population, wants democracy. Half of the population, composed by women, also advocates and demands freedom and equality, legal equality with men, with the other half. Ethnic and linguistic minorities are deprived of their rights, and they demand equality with other groups. Religious minorities are deprived of their rights, and they demand equality. The foundation of democracy, of course is equality. We have several different currents and movements in Iran that all agree on the demand for democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there also those, for example, who are calling for the return of the Shah or, you know, like the son of the Shah, who would be opposed to this government?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] This group mostly is based outside Iran and mostly in the United States, and they have been away from Iran for too long, way too long, and they don’t keep in touch with what is going on in Iran. Over the past 27 years, so many people have been imprisoned and suffered, but none of this group.

Of course, we demand equality, and we oppose any form of discrimination and special privileges. The current regime says it is the prerogative and the privilege of the clerics to rule. And the monarchists advocate the right of a single family to rule. This is in violation of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Ahmadinejad get elected?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] At least there are eight reasons, eight causes for this. First was that many people, including myself, banned participation in the election. Therefore, by doing this, we withdrew millions of people who would have otherwise voted for the reformists.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you banned?

AKBAR GANJI: [translated] Because participation in the elections is collaborating. It’s a form of collaboration with the regime and legitimizing the activities of the regime. And even if we were to succeed in the elections, that would be futile, just as we saw in the eight years of the reform movement.

The second reason for the election of Ahmadinejad is the poor performance of the reformists over the eight years of their tenure. In the best case, the people say the reformists were incompetent; in the worst case, they say they were traitors and they betrayed us.

The third reason the reformists were defeated was that they could not agree on one candidate to run. And the fourth problem, the fourth reason, was that the people at large are highly suspicious of Hashemi Rafsanjani.

AMY GOODMAN: Just an excerpt of our conversation with Akbar Ganji, renowned Iranian activist and investigative journalist, imprisoned by Iran for six years and tortured, says US military action against Iran would only strengthen Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president’s hand. Tomorrow, Iran faces a UN deadline to suspend nuclear enrichment.

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