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Iran's Longest-Serving Prisoner: 20 Years of Humiliation

April 19, 2018
Aida Ghajar
11 min read
Amir-Entezam, first from left, in 1980, at his trial. The hanging judge Ayatollah Gilani, second from right, presided over the trial
Amir-Entezam, first from left, in 1980, at his trial. The hanging judge Ayatollah Gilani, second from right, presided over the trial
Amir Entezam, second from right, in 1980 when he was the Iranian government's spokesman, with today's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, first from left
Amir Entezam, second from right, in 1980 when he was the Iranian government's spokesman, with today's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, first from left
Abbas Amir Entezam and his wife Elaheh in an interview with Hossein Dehbashi
Abbas Amir Entezam and his wife Elaheh in an interview with Hossein Dehbashi

Abbas Amir-Entezam, a former ambassador, the interim government spokesperson following the 1979 revolution, and Iran’s longest-serving political prisoner, has described his experiences in jail and his life over the last four decades. Giving an account of how he has been treated over the years and the humiliation he has suffered without exaggeration or malice, Amir-Entezam offers unique insight into how the Islamic Republic deals with political opposition and challenges to its ideology. 

During the on-camera interview for the Persian website Tarikh (“History”) Online, the prominent former leading figure appeared at times hesitant and choked with emotion, finding it difficult to get out his words. The broadcast met with mixed reactions, with some going on to social media sites to express sympathy with the 86-year-old and others questioning the veracity of his claims.

Although Amir-Entezam is no longer permanently held in prison due his frail health, he is not a free man, and can be put back in jail at any time — a situation that has occurred several times since his first “medical leave” some 20 years ago. 

The interview was published as part of Tarikh Online’s interview series Adobe, which profiles prominent political figures.

The series was launched in 2017, and is produced by Hossein Dehbashi, a documentary filmmaker and a historian who once had close ties with President Rouhani, working as his media consultant during his campaign for the presidency in 2013. Their relations soured and he became a critic of the president’s foreign policy and of the nuclear agreement. In 2010, the FBI accused Dehbashi of “allegedly forging a letter from a high-level UN official submitted in support of his immigration applications." 

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan, the founder of the pro-democracy and nationalist Freedom Movement of Iran, as interim prime minister. Bazargan in turn asked Abbas Amir-Entezam to be the deputy prime minister and the official spokesman for the new government. A short while later he was appointed ambassador to Sweden and other Scandinavian countries.

On November 4, 1979, a group of students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 Americans hostage — an unfolding drama that came to be known as the Hostage Crisis. Amir-Entezam was out of the country at the time, but quickly flew back after Bazargan asked him to return. But then, in December 1979, he was unexpectedly arrested, charged with “spying for the CIA” and “connections with the US,” based on documents that the court claimed were discovered at the occupied US embassy. He was sentenced to life in prison.


Tied to a Donkey

From the very start, Amir-Entezam faced humiliation. For years he was not allowed to wear shoes and his children were not allowed to visit him. One humiliating ordeal that remains vivid in his mind was the day when prison guards tied him and two of his cellmates — Reza Alijani and Taghi Rahmani, journalists and nationalist-religious activists — to a donkey and moved them through a crowd. Alijani and Rahmani were allowed to wear shoes, but Amir-Entezam was forced to stay barefoot.

In those days of clear divisions between eastern and western blocks, Amir-Entezam believed Iran should align itself with the West and the Americans — a belief that sowed anger and hatred in both those who were in power and in their opponents in prison. Amir-Entezam was a pariah in prison as well as out, hated by both sides of Iran’s political and ideological main camps. In those days, inmates had to sit on two sides of a narrow and long tablecloth spread on the ground; the two prisoners facing each other had to eat from the same plate. But the atmosphere among political prisoners was so anti-American that, all of Amir-Entezam’s cellmates refused to share a plate with him. Reza Alijani, who was his cellmate for about two years, was the first inmate to eat with him.

But Amir-Entezam did his best to treat his cellmates exactly the opposite to how they treated him. For example, he knew he snored in his sleep and tried to find a remedy for it. Often he stayed awake at night in order to ensure his cellmates slept and were not kept awake by his snoring. He wiped the floors and cleaned the toilets. Once he asked to see the chief warden of Evin Prison, Asadollah Lajevardi. Lajevardi thought Emir-Entezam was going to ask him for a pardon but, instead, he asked him for Whitex, a cleaning product, so he could make the cells, the rooms and the toilets shine.

He set up French and English language classes for the inmates and, for this, he was rewarded only with more humiliation from prison officials. Davoud Rahmani, the infamous torturer of the 1980s and the chief warden of Ghezel Hesar prison, used to call him “Abbas the Spy”.

Solidarity with Fellow Inmates During the Tragedy of 1988

But little by little, the boundaries separating prisoners from each other came down, and Amir-Entezam was released from his prison within the prison, and eventually accepted by most other political inmates. Then came the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, and any remaining boundaries soon disappeared. According to estimates by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, between 4,500 and 5,000 men, women and children were killed in the summer of 1988 in prisons across Iran.

“The tragedy of the 1988 executions was so enormous that all boundaries were wiped out,” says Reza Alijani. “At the beginning we did not know what was going on. When they took away first the imprisoned members of the People’s Mojahedin [MEK] and then the leftists, very few prisoners remained. In one of those days of uncertainty, we were walking in the prison yard next to inmates from groups like Forghan [an extreme fundamentalist Islamist group opposed to the rule of the Shia clergy] when Amir-Entezam suddenly asked a Forghan member: ‘why did you want to assassinate me?’ The prisoner started stuttering. But it seems that what Amir-Entezam wanted was answers to questions that had occupied him for a long time, and he was unable to find answers for them. He wanted to fill the empty compartments in his mind.”

Perhaps Amir-Entezam still has many unanswered questions — including why he was sentenced to life in prison to why he had been the target of assassination. But he has tried to move on, despite not being rewarded with all the answers. In 2013, Mohammad Mehdi Gilani, the judge who had sentenced him to life in prison, was hospitalized. It happened that, at the time, Amir-Entezam had been sent to the same hospital to receive treatment. He visited the bed-ridden Gilani and told him he forgave him. “Amir-Entezam forgave Gilani from a position of strength, not from one of weakness,” Reza Alijani says. “Discovering the truth is his priority and, from this position, he can forgive.”

Standing by his Beliefs

Amir-Entezam never hid his opinion about the Islamic Republic from his jailers. Just before the 1988 executions, prison authorities handed out questionnaires for inmates to fill out, and he was frank when expressing his opinion. “Perhaps the questionnaires were meant to classify the prisoners for the [coming] executions,” says Alijani. “The most common answer was ‘I have no opinion’ but Amir-Entezam wrote ‘the Islamic Republic is a most tyrannical regime.’ In those years nobody dared to write such things.”

He never retracted his words and, unlike some other imprisoned politicians, did not give into pressure to confess on television. When judiciary and security authorities instructed him to ask for a pardon, he said, “It is you that must ask for my forgiveness. Retry my case and clear my name before I can accept being released.”

Amir-Entezam’s cellmates were released long before he was, but he refused to ask for a pardon. Authorities did release him, but they called it “medical leave of absence." 

According to Taghi Rahmani, who shared a cell with Amir-Entezam from 1988 to 1994, if Amir-Entezam had agreed to TV confessions, then the Islamic Republic could have prepared the ground for the arrest of other members of the post-revolution interim government. “If this happened,” says Rahmani, “they could have destroyed Bazargan and the nationalists. He did not yield and remained devoted to Bazargan and [Mohammad] Mosaddegh [ the nationalist Iranian prime minister who was overthrown in 1953 in a coup]. Amir-Entezam had demands [from the regime] — while we believed that the regime must go and considered these demands as ‘bourgeois’.”

Rahmani believes that all factions and political groups within the government were complicit in creating the “perfect tragedy” for Amir-Entezam. And he says three factors decided his fate. One was that Gilani “cheated” when handing down his verdict. Gilani believed that, according to the Koran and Sharia, talking to the “enemy” in confidence was a crime. The second factor was Amir-Entezam’s opposition to the Assembly of Experts being tasked with writing the new constitution; he wanted a constitution that was approved by Ayatollah Khomeini. This position invited personal vendettas against Amir-Entezam. The third  — and deciding — factor, in Rahmani’s view, was that the Islamic Republic could not accept an alternative view of the government.

The Americans, the Communists and...the Liberals

“In all of Khomeini’s proclamations, written by his son Ahmad, every time the words ‘America’ and the ‘communists’ appeared, the word ‘liberal’ — meaning the Freedom Movement and the nationalists — was added next to them,” says Rahmani. “The Islamic Republic considered them its rivals. Amir-Entezam fell victim to this. He had less support than anybody else because he was less religious. They thought that if they could break Amir-Entezam, the whole interim government would be discredited.”

Today Amir-Entezam is elderly and suffers from the physical damage he endured in prison, some of which cannot be cured, such as hearing loss in one ear due to being exposed to snow and suffering frostbite.

“When a human rights representative from the UN was visiting, they transferred him to Ghezel Hesar Prison in a van,” his wife Elaheh Amir-Entezam told IranWire. “His ear was infected because of the cold, but for 10 months they did not allow him to see a doctor. When he did get to the hospital, the doctors had only two choices. They could either let the infection reach his brain or tear off his eardrum to take out the infection. So he lost hearing in one ear forever.”

Despite these accounts of Amir-Entezam’s experiences as a political prisoner, there are those who challenge his credibility. He has been accused of “blackwashing” because of his hostility toward the Islamic Republic. But Reza Alijani insists Amir-Entezam has no intention of exaggerating what happened to him. “If he wanted to blackwash, he could have come up with other stories,” he says. During the Adobe interview, Amir-Entezam had simply said: “They did not beat me. They humiliated me.” Alijani insists he could have said a lot more, about the harm done to him and the humiliations inflicted on him. According to Elaheh Amir-Entezam, what he talked about in his interview was “just a drop in the ocean.”

Although Alijani is sure Amir-Entezam is not telling everything, he also believes his memory could serve him better too. For example, when Amir-Entezam talks about his most vivid memory of humiliation in prison —the one about the donkey, which he says he shared with Reza Alijani and Taghi Rahmani — neither men remember the incident themselves.  They say old age, years of torture and the medicine that he has been taking have “confused” his mind.

His wife Elaheh Amir-Entezam does not disagree with this, but she says that the donkey incident definitely happened and that perhaps her husband got the names wrong. Rouzbeh Mir Ebrahimi, a journalist who interviewed Amir-Entezam on a daily basis 15 years ago and then published a book about it, agrees. He told IranWire that during those interviews Amir-Entezam also told him the story. “You cannot say that he was suffering from old age at the time,” Mir Ebrahimi says. “He did not cite any names when he told me the story. Now he might have used the wrong names.” 


Room 38

Alijani believes that Amir-Entezam’s prison life was dominated by humiliation because of his jailers’ “hatred and psychological complexes” — a situation that continues today in Iranian prisons. “To begin with, the torturer does not see the prisoner as a human being,” he says. “The prisoner is a Satanic creature that must be punished. And these humiliations do affect the unconscious of the prisoners. The guys who were released were no longer what they had been before. Some broke and became 38-ers. [Room 38 was where the mentally disturbed were kept in the prison.] The jailers imagined they could break Amir-Entezam as well, but they could not. Later, it was some of those security guys who saw what was going on behind the scenes and changed. Some, like Saeed Hajjarian, became reformists who believed that the Islamic Republic cannot survive if structural changes are not made. Others turned out to be like Saeed Emami, a merciless executioner who believed that the structure must be saved at any price.”

Today, Amir-Entezam, who was born in 1932, suffers from various ailments. His “medical leave” began about 20 years ago, although from time to time he has been put back in prison after making comments the authorities find particularly offensive. For example, in 1998, when Asadollah Lajevardi, head of Evin Prison, was assassinated, he gave interviews to media based outside Iran. And in 2003, he issued a statement demanding a referendum to decide what kind of government Iran should have. Legally, he is not yet free. His “medical leave” must be renewed every six months. Although he is not a free man, he still sticks to what he has said in the past: That Iranian society would be stronger, and in a better position to judge what’s best for its future, if it is equipped with the truth.



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