As a high school student, Mahnaz Ghezellou was a supporter of the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), the controversial left opposition group. She was imprisoned from 1984 to 1988 and banned from leaving Iran for 25 years. Today, she works with the Persian-language TV Nowruz in Sweden, but she still carries the scars of the torture that the Islamic Republic inflicted on her — physically, psychologically and in her nightmares.
Mojahedin-e Khalq or the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) played a role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But in the 1980s, following clashes with Ayatollah Khomeini supporters, the MEK directly opposed the regime, calling for its violent overthrow and siding with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). It has become one of the Islamic Republic's most long-standing enemies, and in 1988, it ordered the execution of over 2,000 jailed members of the MEK. Until recently, many countries including the United States considered the MEK to be a terrorist organization.
Encouraged by a close friend, Ghezellou started to actively support the MEK in 1979 soon after the Islamic Revolution. She sold MEK newspapers at her school or in the streets and participated in the group's demonstrations. She distributed their tracts and sold their books from stalls. She was first arrested in 1981 when her school’s Islamic Society informed on her, but she was released after her family signed a pledge that they would stop her from taking part in political activities associated with the MEK.
Then, on June 4, 1984 at 2am, five or six machine gun-toting Revolutionary Guards surrounded the family home. Without producing a warrant, they arrested Mahnaz Ghezellou. They blindfolded and handcuffed her and took her to Evin Prison, treating her roughly and swearing at her the entire time. “They took me to a room and sat me on a chair,” she remembers. “It was completely silent. From under the blindfold I could see a table with a man sitting behind it. I saw the boots of a soldier walking in front of me. When I did not answer their questions, he kicked my right leg with his boot. My foot still does not work right. Then he hit my palms with an iron rod so hard that three of my fingers were dislocated.”
People at the prison called her interrogator “Naserian.” But his real name was Mohammad Moghiseh, who is now a judge at the Revolutionary Court. He is listed on the European Union’s sanctions list for violating the rights of defendants.
“These people are not going to behave this way,” the man sitting at the desk told the guard. They took Ghezellou to another room and laid her on her stomach on a bed. “They handcuffed me,” she says, “tied the handcuff to one end of the bed and my legs to the other end. They threw a military blanket over me and started hitting the soles of my feet. I don’t remember how many times they hit me.”
“Walk to Feel the Pain”
But Mahnaz Ghezellou’s torture had just started. When her torturers did not succeed in breaking her resolve, they left her alone for an hour. Then they came back, and several guards whipped her with cables. She could not stop screaming, so they pushed a dirty handkerchief in her mouth and covered her head with a blanket. She felt she was suffocating and lost consciousness. When she regained consciousness, she was ordered to get up and walk. “If you don’t walk, your feet will go numb and you won’t feel the pain,” they told her. “After they beat me a second time they threw me in small, dark cell,” she says.
When she was being tortured, Ghezellou screamed and cried. But she endured it, she says, because she “believed.” By this time, officials had been arresting MEK members and sympathizers for three years. “Although we were not properly trained, we were ready for it,” Ghezellou says. “We lied to interrogators to save ourselves from torture but they figured it out and beat us harder.”
Before her arrest, she had been under surveillance for a month. Other prisoners had betrayed her under torture. But, says Ghezellou, while undergoing the torture she became more determined not to betray others. So the guards tortured her more intensively. “They would open that heavy metal door at any time during the day or at night and beat you, especially when they found out that you had lied to them.”
Proof of Repentance
Ghezellou says torture did not succeed in making prisoners passive. She says many of those who were tortured in the 1980s and their children are civil activists in Iran today; some of those who left Iran are still politically active. In her view, the torture meted out in the 1980s had two outcomes. One was that it produced “penitents,” the Islamic Republic’s favorite term for MEK members and their sympathizers who repented in prison, and who were often required to prove their sincerity. “One of the penitents who now lives in Sweden testified at the Iran Tribunal that [after he had repented] they included him in an execution squad. A guard ordered him to put his finger on the trigger of the gun and then the guard put his own finger over his and shot another prisoner. But once they left Iran, the penitents became active against the Islamic Republic again. A woman by the name of Mina Tohid who repented when she was sentenced to death joined the Mojahedin after leaving Iran. The true penitents that the regime wanted eluded them except in very few cases.”
The second outcome was that some prisoners went insane. “We had prisoners who walked alone and talked to themselves loudly, inmates who would wear 10 layers of clothing in the heat of the summer and would sit in one spot for hours. There was one who stood up for so long that his legs swelled. He would not take a bath and defecated in his clothes. Some committed suicide. They either hanged themselves with their scarves or cut open their veins with broken glass. Some even committed suicide a year after they were released.”
A Dust of Death and Silence
But Ghezellou believes that torture and repression also affected society as a whole. “People seemed petrified,” she says. “A layer of death-and-silence dust had settled on society. Everybody went home when it got dark. They were afraid. But we felt better than other people when we were released. We had motivation and ideals for which we were paying the price.”
She believes, however, that the effects of torture and repression have not been long-lasting on society. Every 10 years, she says, Iranians have rebelled — in 1998 and in 2009. “Torture was not limited to political prisoners. The regime extended violence to the streets. Examples are floggings and executions and shackling of their victims and economic deprivation. But these tortures have not been successful because people have not relinquished their demands. Prisoners go on hunger strike and workers and teachers and women rally, protest and write about these practices.”
In the 1980s, Mahnaz Ghezellou and 49 other prisoners were sentenced to death. But, in one of his last acts as Ayatollah Khomeini’s deputy, Ayatollah Montazeri pardoned them. They were released on March 19, 1988. But the regime confiscated Ghezellou’s mother’s home and her brother’s company as “collateral.” She was also required to find two acceptable people to guarantee her good behavior and for six months had to present herself at the court every month, answer questions and sign another pledge. She was not permitted to leave Tehran for the first year of her release and each time there was an armed action against the Islamic Republic she was summoned and interrogated again.
For 20 years, Ghezellou was banned from government work, specifically in education. In the 1990s she made an attempt to leave Iran but was caught and had to spend a few months in solitary confinement.
In 2006, after 25 years of being banned from leaving Iran, she managed to get her passport but only after she convinced her interrogator that she wanted to go Syria for pilgrimage. Instead of pilgrimage, she chose exile in Europe. Now her views on democracy and politics have radically changed. She believes that throughout the years of her activism and the ensuing torture, groups and parties opposing the Islamic Republic did not understand what democracy was. “This is why we have no powerful democratic opposition,” she says. “They are all a kind of dictator. The Islamic Republic has survived — not because it is robust, but because the opposition is feeble.”
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