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Exclusive Interview: Former Prisoner on Torture and Interrogations

September 30, 2019
Shahed Alavi
16 min read
Nader Nouri Kohan was tortured for five months to make him confess to having a role in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists
Nader Nouri Kohan was tortured for five months to make him confess to having a role in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists
In the Iranian intelligence ministry’s scenario, Nader Nouri Kohan was supposed to be a Mossad senior officer who had organized and overseen the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists
In the Iranian intelligence ministry’s scenario, Nader Nouri Kohan was supposed to be a Mossad senior officer who had organized and overseen the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists
Nader Nouri Kohan spent 25 months in prison on charges fabricated by the intelligence ministry
Nader Nouri Kohan spent 25 months in prison on charges fabricated by the intelligence ministry

Four Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated and a fifth was wounded between 2012 and 2013, dealing a serious blow to the country’s nuclear program. Islamic Republic authorities believed the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad carried out the assassinations — a conclusion now generally accepted — and launched a vast manhunt. Despite this, after so many years they have had no success in tracking down the killers, but this has not stopped Iranian security agencies from trying to cover up their failure by arresting innocent citizens and torturing them to extract confessions of their guilt.

One of these innocent citizens was Nader Nouri Kohan. He was arrested on June 23, 2012, and tortured for five months. In the scenario dreamt up by the intelligence ministry, he played the role of a senior Mossad officer by the name of “Michael” who had organized and led others in the assassination of the nuclear scientists. However, when in July 2019, the intelligence ministry broadcast a video of confessions by defendants accused of involvement in Mossad operations, Nouri Kohan was not one of them — he was still resisting under torture and refused to confess.

He was eventually released on August 2, 2014, after 25 months in prison.

In an exclusive interview with IranWire, Nouri Kohan talks for the first time about what he went through and what he witnessed during his ordeal in prison, including a political prisoner dying just outside his cell as a result of torture. Part one of the interview follows.


Mr. Nouri Kohan, you were one of five defendants accused of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and spent more time in prison than the others. And yet your name has never been mentioned except by Mazyar Ebrahimi, another defendant in the case. Please say a little about yourself, your education and what you did before you were arrested.

I was born in Tehran in 1976. I studied civil engineering and worked in various road, dam and housing construction projects, like Mehr Housing. I worked at various levels, including as project director and workshop manager. For a short time I was the construction supervisor at Shaheed Rajaie Port. My last job before the arrest was management of the workshop of a contractor company that was building a road close to the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan.


Were you ever summoned or arrested prior to your arrest linked to the case of the assassinated nuclear scientists?

For almost two years before my arrest on June 23, 2012, I lived in Sulaymaniyah, where I worked. Seven months earlier, when I had returned to Tehran to visit my family, they [the authorities] called me from an unlisted number and asked me to go to the Bureau for Alien Affairs on Villa Avenue. Once there, I was met by two people who introduced themselves as agents of the intelligence ministry.

They talked with me for about an hour and asked me about myself, my family and my work. I was in touch with the Iranian consulate in Sulaymaniyah for work-related bureaucratic matters and, naturally, they knew everything about my job and what I did for the company. I had absolutely nothing to hide and I believe that they knew that. I should add that later I met those agents again when I was being interrogated in prison and they had removed my blindfold.

A week later they called me again and asked for the names of employees who were working on this project. A few days later, they summoned me again and confiscated my passport, only 10 days before I had to return to work in Iraqi Kurdistan. The third week I was summoned again and they asked me more questions. In the fourth week I was summoned one more time but this time they returned my passport.


How did the interrogators treat you? Did they say anything that scared you?

Altogether they treated me with respect. The first time that I got nervous was when they took away my passport but I was not too scared because I was confident that it was a mistake and they would find out soon enough. The last time that I was summoned, when they returned my passport, there were three people there — the two usual ones and a third one who was taking notes. When they were returning my passport this third one looked me in the eye and said, “We know you are a Jew. We know a lot of other things about you, but it is all right; take your passport and go.” I said that I was not a Jew and he said, “Yes, you are, but for now, just go.”


The interrogators told Nader Nouri Kohan that they would “repay” him for his services to his country


Did they claim you are Jewish just because “Kohan” is part of your family name, or do you have Jewish ancestors?

The name of my father, who passed away in 1998, was Hossein. He was a Muslim but he said that because of the word “Kohan” in the family name he had been asked many times whether he was Jewish or not. Out of curiosity, he did research and found out that we had Jewish ancestors.


After those summonses and interrogations, you returned to your work in Sulaymaniyah, until seven months later when you were arrested. When and how were you arrested?

On Friday, June 22, I flew from Erbil to Sanandaj [the capital of the Iranian Kurdistan province]. When I arrived in Sanandaj, my phone rang. After welcoming me back, I was told to go to the Bureau for Alien Affairs on Villa Avenue at 7am the next day. On Saturday morning I drove to Villa Avenue. I parked the car, bought cigarettes, a pastry and cocoa with milk from a supermarket opposite the bureau and walked to the building.

When I reached the entrance, the same gentleman who had talked to me on the phone told me, “Come in. Inside a car here there is a picture that I want to show you, to find out whether you know him or not.” It was a white Toyota sedan. One man was sitting on the backseat. I was put in the middle and another man sat on my other side. They handcuffed me and I asked what was going on. They told me not to talk and the car drove off. As we were approaching Evin Prison, they blindfolded me. I protested but they answered me with obscenities and threatened me that I would be sorry if I did not shut up or did not keep my head down.


When did they read you the charges against you?

That day they did not interrogate me. They took me to a clinic, which I later found out was for Evin Prison’s Ward 240. They asked me questions about my health and then transferred me to solitary confinement. On the morning of Sunday, the next day, they took me to the Evin courthouse and the judge, whose name I do not remember, told me that I was charged with “activities against national security by spying for foreigners.” I objected but it was no use. Reading me the charges did not take longer than two or three minutes and they returned me to my cell.


When did the interrogations start?

In the afternoon of the same Sunday. They took me to another ward that I later learned was Ward 209. A voice that I recognized said, “Michael, you know me. I am Mohammadi. We met a few times at the Bureau for Alien Affairs.” “I am not Michael and you know very well that I have not done anything,” I said. “You summoned me, I came voluntarily and answered all the questions that you asked.” “It is better to cooperate for your own sake,” Mohammadi said, and left the room.

Then another voice said, “We know who you are. We have all the documents about you. You better stop clowning and cooperate when asked politely.” He said that I was really an Israeli named “Michael,” responsible for the Iran desk at Mossad and a special operations agent. What they said was ridiculous. I said, “I have never been to Israel in all my life and my past, my travels and my work is well known.” His assertions and my denials lasted around two hours until the interrogator said, “You do not want to cooperate. We have other ways and I am going to write a treatment for you.” Then they returned me to my cell.


Nader Nouri Kohan witnessed the death of a political prisoner outside his cell. The prisoner died as a result of torture


So you were not physically tortured at your first interrogation session. How did the interrogations proceed after that?

The day after they again they took me to a room at Ward 209. From beneath the blindfold I could see that there was a wooden desk in the middle of the room, which looked like an office. They pushed me into the room and one of them said, “Hajj Agha [an honorific], we brought Michael.” A man, probably the same man who had been addressed as Hajj Agha, said, “Hello Michael!” I said I was Nader Nouri and I did not know who Michael was. “We know that you have many names — be it Michael, Nader or any other of your names,” he said. “The point is that we are so happy that, 34 years after the victory of the revolution, for the first time we have succeeded in catching a Mossad intelligence agent. And, finally, we have caught you!”

“Hajj Agha,” I said, “I am not an Israeli, nor a Mossad agent, nor Michael. You have all the information about me. My record shows that I am an ordinary Iranian citizen.” But they talked so matter-of-factly that for a moment I thought they believed in their own scenario. I was terrified and said, “Hajj Agha, there must be a mistake.”


Did they confront you with anybody? Your codefendant Mazyar Ebrahimi told us in an interview that in the very early days of interrogations they brought in a number of people so that he could identify them, so to speak.

Yes. On the same day that I was insisting that I had been arrested by mistake, the same “Hajj Agha” asked me whether I wanted to see the people who had exposed me. “Yes, Hajj Agha,” I said happily and with confidence. “If somebody knows you’re Michael I am sure he would confirm that you have made a mistake.” Then they brought in somebody who was clearly a prisoner, walking in slippers. “Yes, Hajj Agha,” he said the moment that he arrived. “This is the same Michael who gave us military training at a garrison in Israel. And in Iraq he gave us more training, in demolition, in terrorist acts and in planting bombs.”

It was horrifying. They had made me into person who I do not know whether was real or a figment of their imagination. And they had thought about everything.

After this man they brought in a woman. From under the blindfold I could see her chador and her slippers. It seemed as though she had memorized what she was saying or was reading the words from a text. “Ma’am,” I said. “You are probably blindfolded the same way that I am. Why are you lying? How can you recognize me without seeing my eyes?” The woman repeated, “this is the same Michael” and was then taken out of the room. I was enraged. “I am not Michael,” I shouted. “I have served this country. I am an Iranian and it is well known where I have worked and what I have done.” Somebody grabbed my collar from the back and said, “Hajj Agha, this guy has served us a lot. Now we are going to take him away to repay him.”


Did you learn who the man and the woman who testified against you and confirmed the interrogators’ accusations were?

Later, when I was a cellmate with my codefendants, I think I recognized who the man was. From the tone of his voice and his accent I guessed that it must have been Behzad Abdoli, who had been arrested before me and had broken down under torture. Of course, when I asked Behzad about it, he said that it was not him. I do not know who the lady prisoner was. There were a few women among our codefendants.


What happened when the interrogator said they wanted to “repay” you?

They took me to a room that I could see from under my blindfold was filled with sports equipment. There was a metal bed in the room and they told me to lie down on it so that the doctor could examine me. The doctor took my blood pressure and left. They tied my hands and my feet to the bed and started beating the soles of my feet with cables. The pain was horrible and I had never experienced anything like it. “Confess!” they told me. I said, “Confess to what? I have done nothing.” They resumed beating me.

After beating me for a while they untied my hands and my feet. “Go and think about it,” they said. “We’ll bring you back here.” My feet were swollen and I could not walk easily. They forced me to run so that the swelling in my feet would subside a bit and then they returned me to my cell in Ward 240.

These interrogations, floggings, and torture lasted for 27 days. They took me every day for interrogations. Sometimes it was only interrogation, obscenities and threats, occasionally accompanied by beatings. But, in between, at least for five or six times, they tied me to the bed and flogged me where my feet were already injured. I could no longer walk and I had to drag myself. When I was doing especially badly, they would hold me up by my armpits and drag me to my cell.


Before we talk about your transfer from Evin, let me ask you about Ward 240. Was there anybody in the cells next to yours? Could you hear other inmates?

There were a lot of voices and a lot of shouting. It seemed that all the cells at Ward 240 were occupied at the time. Sometimes you could hear a fight. Sometimes, when they went to a cell to take an inmate away, he would resist being handcuffed and blindfolded or he would beg not to be taken for interrogation and torture and the shouting started.

In the cell next to mine there was a French-speaking inmate. Every day, when it was time to give him his medicine, I could hear him speaking in French. I could hear a few Kurdish prisoners as well. Sometimes they would shout and protest and sometimes they cursed or prayed. I had learned Kurdish while I was in Sulaymaniyah. When hearing the shouting of one of them, who sounded like an older man, I learned that he had been arrested because of his son. He shouted that for the last two years he had been a hostage instead of his son. Apparently, he had been held for two years to force his son to surrender himself. “Why have you arrested me?" he would shout. “What has my son got to do with me? Why don’t you let me go, you infidels?” He was desperate. He continuously shouted, cursed or talked to God.


Apart from those Kurdish prisoners and that French-speaking inmate, was there anybody in the ward whose voice attracted your attention?

Another strange incident happened when a prisoner was killed at Ward 240. When they returned the prisoners from the torture room, most of them moaned and cried because of the flogging that they had received and some shouted. One day, a prisoner who had been tortured was crossing the hallway with his guards to go to his cell. When he reached my cell he shouted, “I am dying” and fell to the floor. The guards gathered around him. One shouted that they must call an ambulance. Another shouted for an injection, apparently calling out to the ward’s clinic. Somebody, apparently from the clinic, said that they had no injections. The prisoner’s moaning stopped and a guard who was standing over his body said, “He is gone.”

This prisoner was murdered by being tortured. I have no idea who he was and whether his death was reported to the media or not.


You said that your interrogations lasted for 27 days. Did you yield to their demands? Did they change their methods?

No, at that time I did not give in. During interrogations I repeatedly insisted that I was not guilty.

On the 27th day of my arrest, they told me to gather up my things because they were taking me to the court. I was glad that the misunderstanding was over. I had no doubt that when the judge saw that there was no evidence against me, he would let me go free.

They again put me in a white Toyota sedan. I lived in Tehran and knew how far the court is from Evin Prison. After a while I felt that it was taking longer than it should. I was shackled, hands and feet, and blindfolded. They had wrapped a towel around my head and were keeping my head down so that I could not see anything. We were on a highway because we did not stop for traffic and there was no changing of the gears. It seemed that we were outside the city.

I think we drove for an hour and a half until the car stopped before what seemed to me to be a gate. We made a few stops like this. Eventually, they took me out of the car and into an area like a hall and sat me on the floor in a corner. I had no way of knowing what was going on around me. The towel was still wrapped around my head. I was sitting there for half an hour until somebody lifted me up. When I heard metal doors opening I knew that I was in another prison. This was not a courthouse. Later I learned that this was what they called Prison 300, a place where I was to be brutally tortured for five months until I broke.


Related Coverage:

Intelligence Ministry Warns Iran's Journalists About Spying. Why Now?, September 4, 2019

I had two mock executions. I wished they would execute me for real, August 12, 2019

The Judge Threatened to Sentence Us to Death if We Didn’t Confess, August 10, 2019

Iranian TV Aired My Forced Confessions. It Should be Boycotted, August 9, 2019

Spy for Us or Else: Ahmad Reza Jalali, May 21, 2019

Jalali Disowns Forced Confessions, December 20, 2017

Jalali’s Forced Confessions, December 19, 2017

Was Jalali's Lawyer Working Against Him?, December 11, 2017

Iran Sentences “Mossad Agent” to Death, October 25, 2017

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