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Ahmad Ghabel (1958-2012) fell foul of the Iranian authorities for publicly questioning Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
A "very brave man and a great human being" is how Iranian religious scholar and dissident Ghabel is being remembered by those who knew him and those who had followed his activities from afar.

Ghabel passed away earlier this week at a hospital in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashad where he had undergone surgery for a brain tumor. He was 58.

With his death, Iran lost one of its most outspoken critics of the establishment who refused to be silenced despite pressure, multiple imprisonments, and solitary confinement.

Ghabel, a student of the dissident and former Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri -- known as the godfather of the opposition Green Movement -- publicly challenged Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and accused him of absolute dictatorship and state violence.

Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, maintains that Ghabel preached a more liberal and modern Islam that was not acceptable to the hardliners in power in the Islamic Republic.

"Ghabel was trying to give an interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence that was more practical for today’s life," he says. "For example, regarding the hijab, which is an important issue for Muslims, Ghabel was trying to introduce an interpretation under which covering women’s hair was not mandatory. That was against the views of many other clerics. Ghabel was also against apostasy [charges] and he also rejected an Islamic government."

Ghabel, who was injured during the war with Iraq, publicly condemned the brutal crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and accused Iranian leaders of staging a coup d’état.

Feared By The Establishment

In his "political will," issued in June 2009, Ghabel did not mince words about Ahmadinejad’s reelection and subsequent post-election human rights abuses, which included the killing and rape of peaceful protesters, and which he blamed Khamenei for.

"[Khamenei] speaks as if he personally wasn’t facing any charge!!!" he wrote. "All the recent measures have been taken with his clear support for the coup d’état band."

He also mentioned the June 14, 2009 attack by security forces on the dormitory of Tehran University in which several students were killed, many injured, and dozens arrested.

"Hasn’t [Khamenei] been informed about the savagery of the attackers against Tehran’s University dormitory?" he asked. "Hasn’t he seen the pictures of the rooms and the entrance?!!!"

The establishment feared Ghabel, who gained the respect of many Iranians, including opposition members, intellectuals, and even some of his opponents. He was sent to jail many times for his criticism and defiance.

Ghabel was arrested in December 2009, when he was on his way to attend the funeral of Ayatollah Montazeri. He was brought to court several months later, in 2010, with hands bound and feet chained together.

'A Great Loss' To The Clergy

Montazeri's son, Ahmad Montazeri, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that the authorities wanted to prevent Ghabel from criticizing the regime at a sensitive time.

"He wasn’t afraid of telling the truth, and I think they arrested him to prevent him from making a speech," Montazeri said. "They imprisoned him and kept him in jail, even until he would lose his balance while standing on his feet.”

In July 2012, a seriously ill Ghabel won release after posting a large bail. Yet he was soon jailed again, apparently for giving an interview about the alleged secret executions of dozens of people at Mashad's Vakilabad prison.

At the time of his death he was free on bail to receive medical treatment.

According to Ahmad Montazeri, Ghabel and his courage will be sorely missed.

The clergy has suffered a great loss because of his death." Montazeri said. "We have few people as brave as him. He would express his views without caring about the price to pay; he would express himself despite losing peace for him and his family.”

Ghabel’s sister told the online "Rooz" daily that her brother's main concern was justice and people's rights. “He accepted everything, from jail to his illness without [complaining] even once,” she said.

In his "political will," Ghabel wrote that peace loving and pro-reform Iranians would not support "any violence and illegal behavior." He warned Iranian leaders that their oppressive and tyrannical action would bring them "eternal shame," and said the only correct path for the Islamic establishment was to recognize the rights of the people.

Ghabel’s burial is set to take place in Mashad on October 24.

Radio Farda broadcaster Roya Karimimajd contributed to this report
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad speaks in front of looming posters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran. (file photo)
A day after Iran’s judiciary turned down a request by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to visit Tehran’s Evin prison, the combative president has accused the judiciary of unconstitutional behavior.

Ahmadinejad had asked to visit the notorious prison following the imprisonment of his press adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who was detained in September while the Iranian president was attending the UN General Assembly in New York.

The judiciary -- one of the country’s three top political branches, along with the presidency and the parliament -- publicly reacted to the demand by calling the visit inappropriate at a time when the country is facing mounting economic problems exacerbated by Ahmadinejad’s economic mismanagement and Western sanctions.

"We must pay attention to major issues," Prosecutor-General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei said, adding, “Visiting a prison in these circumstances is a minor issue."

Ali Akbar Javanfekr
Ali Akbar Javanfekr
In a sharply worded letter to the head of the judiciary, Javad Larijani, Ahmadinejad struck back by listing a number of articles in Iran's Constitution concerning the responsibilities of the judiciary and the president.

"I have to remind you that in the constitution, there is nothing that requires asking permission or agreement of the judiciary when it comes to exercising the president's legal duties,” he wrote.

'Very Harsh Attack'

Iran watchers see the escalating public dispute as further proof of the bitter power struggle ongoing within the Islamic republic, a power struggle that has significantly weakened but which has failed to fully neutralize the Iranian president, whose second and final term ends in 2013.

Paris-based political analyst Morteza Kazemian told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Ahmadinejad’s letter demonstrates that he will continue to publicly spar with his powerful rivals, who are close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“In reaction to the humiliation he faced from Mohseni Ejei, Ahmadinejad launched a very harsh attack against the head of the judiciary. It shows that he is determined to make the maximum use of his position with an eye on the future presidential election," Kazemian says. "He is not willing to easily give the presidency to his rivals.”

In his letter, Ahmadinejad said that his demand to visit Evin -- which Ejei linked to the imprisonment of his aide Javanfekr – was aimed at seeing “how the nation’s rights are being preserved,” which he would report to the nation and the supreme leader.

Ahmadinejad said the jailing of Javanfekr, who was sentenced to six months for publishing materials contrary to Islam and for insulting Khamenei, was unjust, and asked in his letter, “How do you know that meeting with [Javanfekr] was on my work agenda?”

Political Calculations?

Ahmadinejad's demand to visit the prison -- home to many of Iran’s political prisoners, including those sentenced for protesting his disputed reelection in 2009 -- has been met with raised eyebrows by many in Iran’s media and political circles.

Journalist Mehdi Mahdaviazad believes the president’s sudden interest in Evin is a politically calculated move. Ahmadinejad has in the past been accused of trying to influence the 2013 presidential vote.

A prison guard stands along a corridor in Tehran's Evin prison. (file photo)
A prison guard stands along a corridor in Tehran's Evin prison. (file photo)


“Ahmadinejad, with his shrewd moves and games, is every day inciting the centers of power allied with Khamenei," Mahdaviazad says. "His latest game is his alleged interest to visit Evin after [not going during] seven years in power. Yet we know very well that he doesn’t care about the prisoners' conditions and democracy.”

Analysts say this latest move has marginalized Ahmadinejad even further and turned some of his former hard-line backers against him.

In an October 22 interview with the daily “Etemad,” Khamenei’s representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Force (IRGC), Ali Saeedi, is quoted as saying that he regrets his past support for Ahmadinejad.

“We did not have the prescience to know what was going on in Ahmadinejad’s mind and what he wanted to do in the future," Saeedi says.

He said he personally told the Iranian president that he could have been a hero.

Radio Farda broadcaster Babak Ghafooriazar contributed to this report

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Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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