Akbar Ganji (File photo)
The United States Wednesday called for the immediate release of Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji, imprisoned since 2000 after reporting on alleged government involvement in extra-judicial killings.  Mr. Ganji is reported to be in poor health.

The United States is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Ganji, an Iranian journalist and free speech activist who the state Department says is imprisoned solely because of his political views and peaceful activities.

Mr. Ganji, a newspaper investigative reporter, was arrested in 2000 and sentenced to six years in prison for reporting on the 1998 killings of four opposition activists and the disappearance of a fifth, allegedly by Iranian security forces with the knowledge of senior government officials.

In a written statement volunteered to reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Mr. Ganji's "courageous" efforts to investigate extra-judicial killings and his commitment to free speech and democracy have earned him respect around the world.

Spokesman Mr. McCormack said the United States is alarmed by recent reports that Mr. Ganji's health is failing, and that he has been denied access to his family and legal representation.

He also said Mr. Ganji's mistreatment in prison is a serious violation of fundamental human rights, and that the United States joins with rights advocates and Mr. Ganji's supporters in Iran in calling on the Tehran government to release him.

The journalists' advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said last month Mr. Ganji, who recently declared himself on a hunger strike, was seriously ill and it also said he should be released unconditionally.

It said prison doctors had recently recommended that Mr. Ganji be hospitalized for back problems and asthma complicated by harsh prison conditions, but that judicial authorities had prevented this.

The group said Mr. Ganji is being held in solitary confinement, and that unlike other Iranian political prisoners is not allowed telephone family members.

Reporters Without Borders said Mr. Ganji's lawyer, the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, has also voiced concern about his health.

The State Department cited Mr. Ganji's case in its latest report on human rights conditions worldwide, released in February, which said Iran's already-poor human rights record worsened over the preceding year.

It said continued serious rights abuses in Iran included arbitrary arrests and detentions, summary executions and torture.

The United States has been sharply critical of Iran's just-completed presidential election, saying the disqualification of all but a handful of candidates by unelected religious authorities meant that Iranians were denied a free choice.