“Banning Torture” was on the agenda of the 30th session of the Islamic Republic constitutional assembly on September 29, 1979, chaired by Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. The meeting was responsible for shaping many parts of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Delegates spoke for and against banning torture as a method of interrogation and punishment; and the session, like others at the time, was captured on video.
In the video, Ayatollah Montazeri and his deputy Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti are seen sitting on a dais while Ayatollah Ali Meshkini holds a piece of paper and talks loudly to the assembly. Meshkini says that, although torture must be banned for extracting confessions or information, it should be considered in certain situations. “For example,” he says, “suppose a few prominent personalities are kidnapped, that we suspect two or three individuals know the identity of the kidnappers, and that they may divulge the information with a few slaps to their faces. Is torture banned [even] in such cases?”
Montazeri and Beheshti both answer that, even then, “Torture is not allowed.”
But less than a year after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the arrests, public executions and confiscation of property belonging to people associated with the previous regime all began. Social and political repression became the norm. Before the decade was out, a multitude lost their lives through torture – even though the constitutional assembly had banned the practice.
Sixty-two members of the constitutional assembly were present at the 1979 meeting and the ban was passed with 50 yeas and 12 abstentions. Article 38 of the Islamic Republic constitution therefore states that “Any kind of torture used to extract an admission of guilt or to obtain information is forbidden. Compelling people to give evidence, or confess or take an oath is not allowed. Such evidence or confession or oath is null and void. Any person infringing this principle is to be punished in accordance with the law.”
In the same session, 58 members of the assembly voted for Article 39: “Aspersion of the dignity of and respect due to any person who has been arrested or put in detention, or imprisoned or exiled by command of the law is forbidden in any form, and is liable to punishment.” Again, there were no votes against and only four delegates abstained.
Don’t Open the Door
“The point is that you open the door,” responded Beheshti to Meshkini’s criticism, during the 1979 meeting, of an absolute ban on torture. “The moment that you open the door [to torture] and they slap somebody who has been charged with big crimes, you can be sure that it will lead to burning everybody with a hot iron. So, this door must be closed, meaning that it would be healthier for society if this door is not opened even if 10 prominent people are abducted.”
“If a guilty person is freed, it is better than [punishing] an innocent person,” said Ayatollah Montazeri in support of Beheshti.
The video ends there. But the transcripts show that the debate carried on. The next critic of the proposed article against torture was Ayatollah Mohiuddin Haeri-Shirazi.
“Society needs prisons, needs executions, needs beatings, needs punishment,” Haeri-Shirazi said. “If you think that a criminal is going to tell the truth, you are wrong. He is not going to. Let’s say that you have [a member of] a group in your hand and you know that they are planning to kill some of the faithful. You want to find out who is going to carry out this plan. You can plead with him but he is not going to tell you. You subject him to Ta’zir and he talks. You cannot reform all of society just by preaching. Beating is a kind of preaching. Execution is preaching as well. Executing one person is the same as preaching to a thousand, to a million.”
In Islamic jurisprudence, Ta’zir is punishment for crimes that have not been specifically addressed by sharia law and are left to the discretion of the judge.
“Islamic Ta’zir is fundamentally different from torturing to force a confession,” Montazeri said in response to Haeri-Shirazi, according to the transcripts. And this response has been the justification for all acts of torture committed by the Islamic Republic since the Revolution. “A con game by the Islamic Republic” is how Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, a scholar of religion and former political prisoner, characterized the justification in an interview with IranWire.
According to Eshkevari, the clergy have always used the argument that “Ta’zir is different from torture”, to justify torture. It is the same reasoning that led Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, to say in response to protests against the high number of executions that “we have not executed a single human being.”
Eshkevari explains that there is a further nuance used by the Islamic Republic to justify their actions. He says that the definition of “human being” in Islam is different from how we understand human beings and human rights today. In other words, you are only a human being if you are a Muslim — or a Shi’a where the Shi’ites hold sway.
What’s the difference?
“This is a big deceit by the Islamic republic,” says Eshkevari. “In prisons they torture the prisoner, they insult him and they humiliate him, to break him or to force him to confess. They call it Ta’zir — the same thing that Haeri-Shirazi was insisting on in that session. But nobody has said what the difference is between torture and Ta’zir.”
The modern concept of torture is absent from Islamic jurisprudence. What it does have is Ta’zib (“tormenting”) which applies only to animals. According to Eshkevari, most Sunni and Shi’a religious authorities forbid “tormenting” both animals and human beings. And yet some of them still “talk like Haeri-Shirazi.”
Eshkevari believes that Iran’s parliament needs to amend sharia laws – but that modern jurisprudence is alien to the Islamic Republic. “When Khomeini mentioned the ‘law’,” he says, “at first, we were under the impression that he was talking about modern jurisprudence. What he meant was sharia.”
From the beginning, the Islamic Republic adopted torture under the cover of “Islamic Ta’zir”. In the 1980s, prisoners were forbidden to say that they had been tortured. If they did, they were tortured even more harshly. Monireh Baradaran was one of them.
“The first time that I was questioned, and waiting in the corridors of Evin Prison for further interrogation, I saw bloody bodies on the floor, and I could hear them moan,” she says. “I was worried that I would be next, so I asked another prisoner whether they tortured everybody. That prisoner had been imprisoned before me and said: ‘Don’t say torture. Say Ta’zir. Otherwise you’ll be tortured more.’”
Baradaran says that she remembers well the discussions at the constituent assembly and the hopes that were raised among political activists — hopes that were dashed quickly and replaced with the lashes of Ta’zir.
“In 1979, this was an important debate and we all followed it,” she says. “It was important to us because under the Shah our family members had been subjected to torture. My brother was one of those who were tortured. The idea of torture intimidated people, even more than the idea of prison. When everybody agreed to ban torture, a few months after the Revolution, we thought that this fear had disappeared. We felt happy and unburdened.”
But such feelings soon disappeared. There were reports of torture emerging from the prisons. Some dismissed the reports as just rumors; but when executions in the streets and public executions in Kurdistan started, the dream of a world without torture turned into a nightmare. As Baradaran says, “From the summer of 1981, when TV confessions started and we could see faces that were black and blue, nobody in his right mind could deny that torture was going on.”
According to Baradaran, what distinguished this round of torture was that it was justified by law as being Islamic. The rulers of the Islamic Republic “had an easy conscience because God had legitimized torture for them.”
Like thousands of others in the 1980s, Baradaran was subjected to mental and physical torture, including the so-called “coffin” tactic, during which prisoners were restrained by plywood on three sides, blindfolded and forced to listen to sermons, confessions and prayers blared over loudspeakers at high volume. And then there was the cross-shackle. The torturers ties one hand over the shoulder to the other hand against the back. And then they pushed hard on the prisoner’s wrists to tie them together. Floggings and beatings were ever-present.
Some, like Baradaran, survived; but many prisoners died during torture or were later executed. Eshkevari says that, after all, Khomeini had a medieval mindset like that of Haeri-Shirazi. They believed that with executions and Ta’zir he was doing God’s work – because an evil is removed from society and even the person who is executed is saved from committing another sin. Apparently.