The Death of Ahmad Ghabel, Dissident Iranian Intellectual

The influential religious scholar suffered persecution and imprisonment.

The influential religious scholar suffered persecution and imprisonment.

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Ahmad Ghabel (RFE/RL)

A "very brave man and a great human being" is how Iranian religious scholar and dissident Ahmad 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 for which he blamed Khamenei.

"[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.

"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.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.