TEHRAN, 14 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Police used violence to break up a student demonstration in the Iranian capital on Tuesday, amid escalating protests and concern over the deteriorating health of political prisoner and journalist, Akbar Ganji.
The police beat both male and female demonstrators and a local Reuters journalist covering the story was also attacked with batons as they tried to disperse the crowd outside Tehran University, in the centre of the city.
Akbar Ganji, Iran's most famous political prisoner, was given a six year prison sentence in 2000 after following his trial on a variety of charges. Some charges related to an article he wrote that linked some of the country's top officials to the 1998 murder of dissident intellectuals, known as the 'serial murders.' He was temporarily released from prison in May for medical care, when he came to the end of a 43-day hunger strike.
However, since returning to prison in June, he has resumed his hunger strike and he is now reported to be suffering severe respiratory problems.
Ganji's worsening health has prompted strong reactions from the West. As his supporters gathered at the university, President Bush released a statement calling for Ganji's release.
The authorities in Tehran reacted angrily to what they see as outside interference in domestic judicial affairs. State-run radio reported Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, as saying: "The White House talks about violations of human rights in Iran while the world hates the US violations of human rights in both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons [the two controversial US detention facilities holding untried terror suspects]."
On Wednesday, 33 Iranian political activists wrote a letter to the United Nations warning that Gangi's life is in danger.
"For the sake of human rights, (we) ask you to intervene directly in Ganji's case and follow it as an urgent human rights issue," the activists said in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Ganji said in a statement released in May: "I protest against my illegal and unjust imprisonment, all the more so because I cannot even pursue my treatment outside Evin prison. I am beginning an unlimited hunger strike this evening. No one should be imprisoned - not even for a second - for expressing an opinion."
There are also concerns about the health of Nasser Zarafshan, another political prisoner held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Zarafshan was the lawyer for the defence in the 'serial murders' case and he was detained in August 2002 on charges of divulging state secrets. He was sentence to five years in prison and 70 lashes.
In the past, the US-based pressure group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called Iran the world's biggest prison for journalists and in recent years, more than 100 publications have been shut down by Iran's hard-line judiciary, on charges ranging from criticising the leadership to 'insulting religious sanctities'.
Journalists and political dissidents are fearful that under Iran's new ultra-conservative President-elect, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, political crackdowns could increase as the power of the ideological right continues to grow.
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