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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Akbar Ganji Arrives in Moscow

APGanji speaking at a ceremony to support press freedom in Tehran on May 3.
Eclipsed by alarmist headlines about Iran's nuclear ambitions was the story of a single man who posed perhaps the most formidable internal challenge to the government in the past decade.

Freed 10 weeks ago after serving six years in prison, Akbar Ganji, 46, has come to Moscow to receive this year's Golden Pen of Freedom award from the World Association of Newspapers during Monday's opening ceremony in the Kremlin.

"We selected Ganji because he defended press freedom at tremendous personal cost," said Larry Kilman, a spokesman for the Paris-based association.

An investigative journalist and author of "Dungeon of Ghosts," a book that implicated leading government conservatives in the murders of several writers and intellectuals in the late 1990s, Ganji was arrested in April 2000 on charges of offending the country's Islamic regime.

A court sentenced him to 10 years in prison the following year. The sentence was later reduced to six years.

While locked in solitary confinement, Ganji managed to smuggle out several essays calling for a separation of religion and government in Iran and denouncing clerical powers as incompatible with democracy.

In May of last year, Ganji started an intermittent hunger strike that saw him shed 25 kilograms over three months.

"Today my broken face is the true face of the system in the Islamic Republic of Iran," he wrote on June 29, the 30th day of his hunger strike. "Let it be known that if learning my lesson is to denounce my previous opinions, Ganji will never learn his lesson."

His essays and manifestos were published in the Western press and on many Internet blogs dedicated to him.

He was granted leave from prison for medical treatment in late May 2005, and he used his freedom to call for a boycott of Iran's presidential election the next month. He was returned to prison on June 11.

Twice during the hunger strike Ganji was hospitalized for malnutrition and poor health.

Iranian authorities denied demands for Ganji's release from the European Union, the U.S. State Department and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

He was freed on March 17 after serving his entire sentence.

Russia's Guild of Press Publishers, a professional organization associated with the newspaper conference, invited Ganji to Moscow. He received his passport only on May 16.

"We were worried that he would not be given his passport in time and would not come to Moscow," said Yevgeny Abov, a vice president of the guild. "To help him with the visa, we wrote an extraordinary request to the Russian Foreign Ministry, and it was honored." Ganji arrived in Moscow over the weekend.

Unlike Salman Rushdie, the British author who has challenged Iranian clerical dogma, Ganji is virtually unknown in Russia, even among journalists and other media professionals.

Very little is known about Ganji's status and condition since his release from prison, apart from the fact that he has continued to write.

"Society will not attain freedom of expression just by writing about it and its justifying bases. Belief without action is not a belief at all," Ganji wrote in his latest essay, dated May 20 and published at the FreeGanji blog. "It is not possible to claim belief in humanist values and ideals but not to take a step for their realization."