Hamid was cellmates with Salafist prisoners in Iran for eight months. He says he was scared of them, since they were affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and proudly boasted of their jihadist military training.
He says not all of these prisoners belonged to the same group. “There was another group of prisoners who had been influenced by Al-Qaeda and ISIS propaganda and had been arrested in the provinces of Kurdistan or Kermanshah because they had displayed signs of Sunni extremism or had distributed propaganda in books and on CDs. Of course, neither group wanted to have anything to do with the other prisoners.”
For years, ward 10 of Rajaei Shahr Prison in Karaj, west of Tehran, was where Sunni prisoners who were sentenced to death for cooperating with Salafist groups were sent.
After a group of these prisoners was executed last summer, most prisoners connected with Al-Qaeda and ISIS were scattered between various wards.
According to available statistics, prior to June 7, 2017, Iranian prisons held around 300 prisoners who had been charged with cooperating with Salafist groups or with hostile acts against the Islamic Republic.
After the June 7 terror attacks in Tehran, more people have been arrested on suspicion of working with Salafist groups. Most of these prisoners are being held at Rajaei Shahr, Evin and Ghezel Ghaleh prisons, or the central prisons in Sanandaj, Hamedan and Zahedan.
Volleyball in the Afternoon
For the past six years, Hamid has been serving time for a “security” offence at Ward 12 of Rajaei Shahr. He says he had come to know some of those Sunni prisoners who were later executed.
“They had a powerful volleyball team,” he says. “When we were allowed into the yard, I got to talking to them because I am a good volleyball player. They rarely got close to anybody outside their group but they accepted me because of volleyball.”
In his memoirs, Bahman Ahmadi Amouee, the journalist who spent more than five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime” also refers to this volleyball team: “They had a volleyball team and played together in the afternoons. Sometimes, they would sit around and practice reciting parts of Koran that they had memorized.”
While ward 10 of Rajaei Shahr holds prisoners connected to ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Ward 11 is for ordinary prisoners and, on rare occasions, for dangerous criminals. Prisoners of conscience, along with political and “security” prisoners, are kept in ward 12. These three wards have no way of directly communicating with each other.
The “Moderate” Al-Qaeda
According to Hamid, it seems that since last year most of the inmates in Ward 10 have been transferred to Ward 7. “During the time I socialized with them, I noticed that Al-Qaeda prisoners left Iran after serving their sentences and that those who were moderates usually cooled down,” Hamid says. “But in inter-prison arguments, ISIS prisoners never expressed repentance and never changed their minds after they were released. Very few of them had had a higher education or had read anything beyond the Koran or other Islamic scriptures.”
Rajaei Shahr Prison used to hold close to 200 Al-Qaeda and ISIS prisoners, of which 27 were executed last year. But Evin Prison in Tehran holds a few of them. At Evin, they are scattered between wards 350, 4, 7, 8 and 209. “Even though most of them are Kurds, they talk to each other in fluent Arabic instead of Kurdish,” Hamid says.
“My cellmates spoke Kurdish among themselves and Persian with us,” says Ehsan Mehrabi, a journalist who spent some time in prison next to Al-Qaeda prisoners. “Their conversations in Arabic were another story.
According to Mohsen Aminzadeh, a reformist politician jailed in 2010, some of the foreign members of Al-Qaeda who are not fluent in Arabic use verses from the Koran to communicate with each other.”
Koranic Arabic is very different from the modern Arabic language.
Mehrabi remembers a group of inmates who had fought in Afghanistan against the American forces. “They boasted of killing Americans,” he says. “Some were smugglers or things like that before they had joined Al-Qaeda. Some, like Mohammad Baraei, were Sunni clerics who had been apprehended after attending religious gatherings outside Iran. The interesting point is that Mohammad Baraei was sentenced to a prison term much longer than that of prisoners were said to have participated in military operations.”
In his memoirs, like Bahman Ahmadi Amouee, Ehsan Mehrabi talks about the gradual thaw in the icy relations between Al-Qaeda inmates and political prisoners. “When they first entered Evin’s [communal] Ward 350, prisoners from Al-Qaeda clashed with other prisoners because of their extreme religious beliefs,” he writes. “But after their religious leaders, including Mohammad Baraei, forged closer relations with figures like [journalist, human rights activist and theologian] Emadeddin Baghi, they moderated their extremist views to some degree.”
More Time to Pray in Solitary
Another group of prisoners is made up of foreigners who were apprehended while they were trying to cross Iran to join ISIS.
“Among them were two Egyptians who were at Evin’s Ward 350 when the Arab Spring started,” Mehrabi writes. “Some of the prisoners including [journalist] Ali Malihi and [student activist] Ehsan Abdoh Tabrizi Spoke to these two prisoners in English. One of them was an electrical engineer. Sometimes, these two did not answer to the roll call so that they would be sent to solitary confinement. They said that they had more time to pray in solitary.”
According to the testimony of political prisoners who were their cellmates, ISIS an Al-Qaeda prisoners spent a lot of their time praying, reading the Koran and performing religious rituals. “Each day, eight congregational prayer sessions are held: five for Al-Qaeda inmates and three for others...” writes Amouee in his memoirs. “It is very uncomfortable and we don’t have much quiet. Even the inmates from other cells come to ours to participate in congressional prayers.”
Hamid, who is still at Rajaei Shahr, has his own stories about how the Salafists behaved in the prison.
“I was cellmates with a Salafist for four months,” he says. “He was an emir of [the Al-Qaeda] Brigades. For them, an ‘emir’ is like one of our own religious authorities and can issue edicts, such saying somebody is an apostate and deserves to die. He was born in the town of Javanroud in the province of Kermanshah. I was never subjected to his violent behavior, but he described to me in detail his military training in eastern Kurdistan, his many trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, and those people he had dispatched ‘to hell.’ This is how he talked about his victims. He used to say that ‘the Islamic Republic is not our enemy and does not bother us in our activities and propaganda.’ But he also repeated that the ordinary people in the region did not treat groups like his kindly.”
Hamid also remembers a Salafist inmate who tried hard to get him acquainted with the “pure Islam of Mohammad” that, according to him, lasted for only 300 years but was later distorted and corrupted.
One point that all political prisoners found surprising was the freedom of action that some of the extremist activists had enjoyed before they were apprehended. “My cellmate,” Hamid says, “was arrested one day before the 2013 elections in the course of a bloody clash between the police and an Iranian Salafist group. He said that at first, their activities were tolerated because they wanted to use them as a means to prevent Iraqi Kurds from encroaching into Iran, or even to control dissident Iranian Kurds. But as time has gone by, clashes have multiplied and spread and many have ended in prison or have been executed.”
Shall We Dance?
Hamid’s cellmate was one of the few Salifist inmates who was willing to take part in English language classes in prison.
“They generally had no interest in participating in English language classes or other courses,” he says. “English classes in prison were usually taught by inmates who had lived in English-speaking countries for many years,” writes Ehsan Mehrabi in his memoirs. “Mr. Baraei was taking part in one of these classes. I and other prisoners used to tease him. For example, one day when we were exercising the word ‘if’ I asked him what he would do ‘if’ he had an airplane and other students shouted together, ‘I would crash it into the tower.’ Another time, when we were working on ‘shall,’ I asked him ‘Shall we dance?’ It seemed that gradually, they had gotten used to these jokes whereas earlier, they had reacted sharply.”