Special Event

The Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty

Date and Time
May 13, 2010 6:30 - 10 PM EDT
Hilton Washington
Akbar Ganji

Akbar Ganji: Winner of the 2010 Milton Friedman Prize

Akbar Ganji, an Iranian writer and journalist who spent 6 years in a Tehran prison for advocating a secular democracy and exposing government involvement in the assassination of individuals who opposed Iran’s theocratic regime, has been named the 2010 winner of the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty.

Ganji may be best known for a 1999 series of articles investigating the Chain Murders of Iran, which left five dissident intellectuals dead. Later published in the book, The Dungeon of Ghosts, his articles tied the killings to senior clerics and other officials in the Iran government, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The Dungeon of Ghosts became a national bestseller and is believed to have helped bring about electoral defeats for conservative candidates in the parliamentary elections of 2000. Upon returning from a conference in Berlin shortly after the elections, Ganji was arrested for spreading propaganda against the Islamic system and “damaging national security.” He was eventually sentenced to six years in prison, much of it spent in solitary confinement.

“Akbar Ganji endured immense suffering fighting for the cause of liberty in Iran,” said Edward H. Crane, president of the Cato Institute. “Considering what he went through, no one would have blamed him for giving up, but he continued to think and write about ways to make Iran a better place for his people, risking his personal freedom and safety with every word.”

Ganji was able to complete significant written work while in prison, including his Republican Manifesto, a six‐​chapter manual for a full‐​fledged democracy in Iran, which was smuggled out of his prison cell piece by piece and widely distributed. Included in his list of prerequisites for what he called a “developmentalist‐​democratic government” were the “presence of a free civil society, a relatively independent political society, effective enforcement of laws regarding all citizens, positive functioning of bureaucracy, a pluralist economy, regular and just elections, respecting human rights, independent press free from government control and an independent judiciary.”

He undertook a hunger strike during his last year in prison, which helped activate international human rights groups and Nobel Laureates to his cause, but got little attention in Iran due to heavy press censorship.

Ganji was released from prison in March of 2006 and left Iran shortly thereafter. Many countries around the world offered him honorary citizenship, and he traveled extensively, giving talks promoting democracy in Iran and exposing major human rights abuses by the Iranian government. Despite his battle with Iran’s theocracy, Ganji remains steadfastly opposed to military action by the United States in both Iran and Iraq, saying “you cannot bring democracy to a country by attacking it.”

Ganji now lives in New York. His first book in English, The Road to Democracy in Iran, was published in April 2008. He was chosen to receive the award through a public, worldwide nomination process.

  • YouTube Video:Akbar Ganji speaks about his first English language book.
  • Democracy Now! Video:Akbar Ganji blasts mass trial and torture of prisoners in Iran.
  • The Road to Democracy in IranAkbar Ganji’s first English language book
  • Speech:In Russia upon receiving award from World Association of Newspapers

The members of the 2010 International Selection Committee:

Samuel Brittan, Economic Commentator, Financial Times
Edward H. Crane, President, Cato Institute
Gurcharan Das, Former CEO of Procter & Gamble India Author of India Unbound
Karen Horn, Director, Berlin Office, Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft
Charles G. Koch, Chairman and CEO, Koch Industries Inc.
Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Member, Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal
Fareed Zakaria, Editor, Newsweek International

Akbar Ganji’s Biography

Born in the Qazvin Province of Iran in 1960, Akbar Ganji is a celebrated journalist, an outspoken critic of the Iranian government, and a political dissident whose commitment to liberty and human rights is recognized world wide. Ganji was raised in southern Tehran in a devout and poor family household and became active in the Islamist movement against the Shah. He participated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and later joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard during the harsh Iran‐​Iraq war. He later served as a cultural and press staff member at the Iranian embassy in Turkey and then with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security.

As his involvement with the regime deepened, Ganji grew increasingly disenchanted with the direction and character of the Islamic government. As a result, in the mid 1990’s he moved energetically into investigative journalism and was soon publishing articles about excesses in the President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s regime in reformist and pro‐​democracy newspapers, many of which were eventually shut down by the government.

Ganji’s commitment to exposing government corruption and excesses reached a critical juncture in 1999 with the publication of his articles in the leading newspaper Sobh‐​e Emrooz [Today’s Morning] on the 1998 murders of five writers and dissidents. Ganji’s articles on what became known as the Chain Murders of Iran revealed many previously secret aspects of the killings, exposed the involvement of then President Rafsanjani and leading members of the clergy in the murders, and implicated senior officials in the Ministry of Intelligence and other security agencies in their commission.

This remarkable series of articles was published as a book, The Dungeon of Ghosts, and rapidly became a bestseller. The book was credited with helping to defeat many conservative candidates in the February 2000 parliamentary elections and played a significant role in bringing about the election of a number of pro‐​reform candidates. It also provoked hard‐​liners and placed Ganji in a position of great vulnerability.

Retribution came swiftly. Ganji was arrested in April 2000, upon returning to Iran from a conference in Berlin titled “Iran after the Election.” He was accused of having “damaged national security” and of having participated in a conference deemed “anti‐​Islamic” and “anti‐​revolutionary.” Ganji was sentenced in January 2001 to ten years in prison, to be followed by five years of internal exile.

Ganji was sent to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. Though his original sentence was reduced on appeal he was sentenced to another six years in prison on charges brought against him for articles he had written prior to 2000 and for having copies of foreign newspapers in his possession. He was sentenced for “collecting confidential information harmful to national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic system.”

Ganji was placed in solitary confinement, but he continued to write. His letters were smuggled from prison. They denounced authoritarianism and demanded the protection of basic human rights. In 2002 Ganji wrote a six‐​chapter Republican Manifesto, which laid out the contours of a true democracy for Iran and called for the boycott of all elections in the Islamic Republic.

Ganji went on a hunger strike for more than 80 days in mid‐​2005, which drew international attention to Iranian human rights abuses. In one letter smuggled from prison — “Letter to the Free People of the World” — he stated that “If need be, I will continue my hunger strike until death. Today, my gaunt face unmasks the Islamic Republic. I have become a symbol of justice in the face of tyranny, my emaciated body exposing the contradictions of a government where justice and tyranny have been reversed.”

In late May, 2005, Ganji was granted a 12‐​day leave ahead of the presidential elections, which were to be held in early June. Ganji used his leave to participate in interviews with news agencies in which he criticized Ayatollah Ali Khameni, the “supreme leader” of Iran, and asked for his office to be put to a public vote. The authorities called for his arrest for “illegal interviews,” and Ganji turned himself in. He resumed his hunger strike in solitary confinement on June 11, 2005.

Many Iranians were unaware because of censorship of Ganji’s hunger strike, but his strike drew a worldwide response. Hundreds of prominent human rights activists, academics, writers, and journalists demanded his unconditional release in a petition addressed to the UN Human Rights Commissionaire, the European Parliament, and the Iranian Authorities. They expressed their “astonishment that a person, who has served his country, has devoted his life to the improvement of civil society and has come to be known as one of the most vocal and respected journalists of his time should be treated in this way.”

Since his release in March 2006, Ganji has traveled internationally in an effort to bring attention to the abuse of political prisoners in Iran. He has been widely recognized by international writers and human rights groups for his courageous work as a stalwart defender of freedom and democracy. Ganji has been a strong supporter of the recent peaceful prodemocracy protests in Iran. His latest book, The Road to Democracy in Iran (2008), is his first book to be translated into English.