By Ehsan Mehrabi
October 26, 2021
Any Iranian citizen who pens a critical open letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can expect to face prison and even the death sentence. In the 1990s, due to the political climate, the cost of publishing such missives was particularly high. One frequent writer, Ali Akbar Saeedi Sirjani, died in prison – not before he wrote that the Supreme Leader’s response to his open letters was tantamount to “drinking the hemlock chalice”.
Some of Sirjani’s letters to Khamenei have survived, although Khamenei’s responses have never been published. But from reading Sirjani’s letters we find out that the Supreme Leader accused him of “heresy”.
In the 1990s, Saeedi Sirjani was banned from publishing. Even reprints of his already published works were not allowed to be distributed. In 1992, he wrote a series of letters to protest against this ban to then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Larijani, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But this got him nowhere.
In his diaries, Rafsanjani does not mention if he acted on the requests, only noting that Saeedi Sirjani bore no animosity toward him personally. After Rafsanjani won the 1989 presidential election, Sirjani praised his inauguration speech in an opinion piece published by Etela’at. He wrote that this speech had given hope to some, and irked others:
“Those who have been disappointed [by the election result] are racketeers who have prospered for years thanks to the state of free-for-all, and there can be no doubt that they will not sit silently…If the affairs are to be run in the right way, if human dignity is to be respected and if the violation of people’s privacy is to be stopped, then what is to become of those criminals who, under false pretences, raided people’s homes, dressed as bailiffs from certain agencies, while the residents did not dare to complain? Tomorrow they are going to hire a few worn-out hookers, send them to the streets in indecent clothing and then cry to heaven that honor and decency are gone.”
In an interview, the hardliner newspaper Kayhan asked Rafsanjani about Sirjani’s “mischievous” piece in support of him. They claimed it was “the starting point of current political disagreements”. Rafsanjani simply replied: “You are saying that Mr. Saeedi Sirjani, a writer whose views are known, has written an article. As it happens, the newspapers Kayhan, Islamic Republic and Ettela’at itself published tens of articles supporting and rejecting that piece. I remember that in one of its issues, Ettela’at apologized to numerous writers by name because it had received too many articles and could publish all of them.”
Going to the Top
Sirjani’s complaints fell on deaf ears. He did not receive a response from Rafsanjani and the ban on his work remained in place. Undeterred, he went straight to the top and wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader. According to the religious scholar Mohsen Kadivar, Khamenei did not answer. Three months later, Saeedi Sirjani wrote to him again.
One of Sirjani’s main gripes related to the banning of his 1989 book, Zahhak the Snake-Shoulder. Zahhak was an evil ruler in Persian mythology and the novel had been interpreted as an attack on the Islamic Republic. In his second letter to Khamenei, he explained that the book was really about mythological Iran and had nothing to do with the current regime.
In the letter, he also predicted that in order to discredit him, the Ministry of Intelligence would plant opium in his home. He also wrote that Kayhan’s libelling of him was intended “to prevent even one person from praying over the corpse of a notorious heretic like me”.
In the end, Sirjani’s prediction came true. The Intelligence Ministry’s Director of Domestic Security soon arrested him on litany of charges, including “drug trafficking”, “making, stockpiling and distributing alcoholic beverages”, “obscenely immoral activities and homosexuality”, “contacts with Savak [the Shah’s secret police] in relation to the Nojeh coup d’état [a 1980 plot to overthrow the newly-established Islamic Republic] and bombing activities”, “contact with foreign intelligence services” and “receiving considerable amounts of foreign currency from anti-revolutionary networks in the United States and Britain”.
Kioumars Saberi Foumani, a satirist and friend of Sirjani known by his pen name Gol-Agha, delivered and read Khamenei’s response to Sirjani. However, he was not allowed to leave it in Sirjani’s possession. From Sirjani’s next letter, we learn that in his “reproachful” response, Khamenei had called him a “heretic” who “does not believe in Islam”.
Sirjani wrote that he had been subjected to Khamenei’s “wrath”, adding: “Soon enough the ever-present Hezbollah will settle scores with me”. He also denied being a heretic: “I am a pure-minded Muslim. I am proud of my religion and my beliefs.”
Sirjani summarised Khamenei’s response as “the order to fire and drink the hemlock chalice”. He concluded his last letter to the Supreme Leader with the remark: “Let posterity know that in the unfortunate land of Iran there were people who gave up their lives, and boldly welcomed death.”
The “Second” Salman Rushdie
Ali Akbar Saeedi Sirjani was arrested on March 15, 1994. Before his arrest, an angry mob repeatedly gathered outside his home and chanted: “Saeedi Sirjani, the second Salman Rushdie”, in reference to the Indian-born British-American novelist whose book The Satanic Verses prompted Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa in 1989, offering a bounty to anybody who would assassinate him.
Sirjani’s forced confessions were shared with the public while he remained in custody. These included a letter to his interrogator that was published in Ettela’at on June 2, 1994 and a letter addressed to the staff of Kayhan on June 26 the same year. In these coerced statements, Saeedi Sirjani criticised his past work, and said: “I gave my soul a hard jolt about my books and my writings after the Revolution.”
Five months later on December 27, Sirjani was reported in Iranian media to have died from a “massive heart attack”. According to his daughter, Intelligence Ministry agents summoned his wife to a safe house and told her she could only bury her husband if she promised to not request an autopsy. The next day, Rafsanjani wrote in his diary that then-Chief Justice Mohammad Yazdi had told him Sirjani died of “natural causes”.
In fact, Sirjani’s death was part of the infamous 1999 “chain murders”: a series of extrajudicial assassinations of Iranian dissidents and intellectuals. As the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran writes, this came to light after it was revealed that Sirjani had been poisoned in prison by Saeed Emami. He administered to Sirjani a potassium suppository which induced a fatal heart attack. This was reported by the coroner as his cause of death.
Emami himself was later arrested in 1999 and charged with orchestrating the chain murders. Five months after his arrest, on June 19, 1999, the judiciary announced that Emami had taken his own life. However, many reformist (and some conservative) analysts have alleged that he was killed so he would take the secrets about the chain murders to his grave.