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 Iranian security agencies have had no success in tracking down the killers, but this has not stopped them 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.
He was eventually released on August 2, 2014, after 25 months in prison.
In this, the last part of a four-part exclusive interview, Nouri Kohan talks about how his situation began to change as the Revolutionary Guards took over his case, and the cases of others, from the government's Ministry of Intelligence — and as the Supreme Leader strengthened his ties with the Guards and the rift between the Leader and the executive branch of the government widened. He outlines his last days in prison, and the profound anxiety he experienced even after he had been told he would be released. He talks, too, about what it was like outside prison, and his constant fear that the agents would come back for him.
In part one of the interview, he describes his arrest, early interrogations, and the first bouts of torture he endured. In part two, Nouri Kohan talks about the secret prison he was taken to, where his interrogations continued, and where he endured repeated, brutal torture to make him admit guilt to a series of up to 32 terrorist acts, some which took place when he was only a child. In part three, he describes how intelligence ministry agents set up a scenario outlining how he carried out the crimes, and tortured him to make him confess to the specific details of this script. He also discusses his encounters with other people who had been accused of being part of the same scenario and who were being forced to confess too.
The judge in your case was Abolghasem Salavati. When did you first meet him and what happened at the court?
It was a Thursday or Friday, late July I believe, when they first took me to Judge Salavati at the revolutionary court. That day the court was closed. “How are you, Michael?” said Salavati the moment I entered the room and he saw me. “I am not Michael, I have done nothing and I am innocent,” I said. “Do you know who I am?” Salavati asked. I said that I did not. “You have not even seen me on TV?” he said. I told him that I do not watch Iranian TV. “That figures. Of course you don’t watch Iranian TV!” he said and paused a little. “Why are your clothes so dirty and why your beard is so long?” he said. “Your honor, they do not give us clothes in prison,” I said. “If you order them to give us clothes I would change every day. If they allow us, I would take a shower every day and shave. I don’t like to grow a beard.” Salavati flew off the handle and said, “You dirty Jew! If the next time you come here you have a beard I’ll throw you right out of this window.”
Then he showed me a piece of paper and said, “This is your death warrant. Your death warrant has been issued and there is no need at all to come here and talk. I issued your death warrant based on the evidence that I have right here, but I want to give you a chance. Go back, talk with your interrogators and say something about Israel that can be of use to us. Then maybe I will reconsider my verdict and change it from the death penalty to life in prison. Now get lost!”
This was my first meeting with Judge Salavati and then they took me back to my cell.
Did you meet Judge Salavati again or did your trial last for just those few minutes? What did the interrogators do when they learned that you recanted your confessions at the court?
They took me again to that furnished intelligence ministry building. This time they did not allow me to remove my blindfold and said there were officials present who did not want me to see them. They sat me down facing the wall and a few people sat around me. “We heard that you told the court that you are innocent,” one said. “Yes, I am innocent and I said what I said under torture,” I said. “You will be punished again and you will say everything again,” the same person said. “Why make your own life more difficult?” he asked. I answered, “For nearly two years you have been following this course. Why should I tell the court that I am guilty of something when I am not and make certain that I will be executed?”
“On Sunday we will take you back to court,” said one of them. “You will tell Salavati that you have done all the things that you told us and take the blame for them. When your death warrant arrives we have to say that we have executed you and publish the news that the verdict has been carried out, but we will not execute you. Instead, we will get you a place and a car and you will be working for us.”
I said, “I had a life, a job, a home and a car all by myself and you are not trustworthy. You will execute me. Even if you don’t execute me, you must have come to believe that I really am a Mossad agent and you will want me to do things for you that I could not possibly do and I would be back to exactly where I am now.” After two hours of wrangling I was returned to my cell at Ward 240.
Did you go to court again after this? Did they allow you a lawyer?
On Sunday they took me back to the court. I was sitting outside the courtroom, waiting to be called in. A lean gentleman of around 35 who was carrying a leather briefcase came and sat next to me. He introduced himself but I do not remember his name. “I am your court-appointed lawyer and I will defend you in court,” he said. “They never gave me a power of attorney to sign,” I said. “And how can you defend me without having seen or heard me and without knowing what I have been through? How are you going to defend me, and why didn’t you come to me sooner?”
“I have been reading your dossier for quite some time and I know what is going on,” he said. “I was a court-appointed lawyer for two Iranian-American dual nationals and I saved them from execution. You just plead guilty to the charges and let me do the rest! Of course, it is going to be costly. It will cost around one million dollars to change your sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment. Then you will get a pardon from the Supreme Leader and you will be released in 15 or 20 years. But you don’t have to give the money all at once or in cash.”
“Do you have any idea of what you are talking about?” I exclaimed. “Why should I take the blame for things I haven’t done and then pay a bribe to save my life? I don’t want any lawyer.” He said that he was a court-appointed lawyer and “I will defend you anyhow.”
Did you at last go into the courtroom? How did Judge Salavati treat you?
Yes, we went into the courtroom after a while. After verses from the Koran were recited, the assistant prosecutor read the indictment and the major charges that they had listed during the interrogations. He said that I was Jewish and a Mossad agent. “Do you have defense?” Judge Salavati asked me. The lawyer said that he would present the defense but I said that I would defend myself.
“I am not ‘Michael’, nor a Jew, nor an agent of anybody,” I said. “I have been heavily tortured and right here and now while I am talking I have a nervous tick, as you can see for yourself. My hands and feet shake as a result of torture and my health is not good at all. What the assistant prosecutor said are my confessions under torture. The truth is that I have done nothing wrong.”
“There are hundreds of pages of your confessions, in your own handwriting, very clear and legible,” said Salavati. “Nobody can write so clean and legibly under torture.” I said, “Your honor, these have been rewritten and torn up over and over again and have been corrected for errors. And when the text met the approval of the interrogators, they told me to sit down and write it clearly and without errors. Each page of these confessions has a date on them and they were all written in interrogation rooms equipped with CCTV. If you order them to show you the recording from one of these days, you will find out how many times these papers have been rewritten and how many times the interrogators gave me the names themselves and gave me clues about what they wanted me to write.”
I defended myself for close to 40 minutes and the judge said that he would review the case and would recall me to court for further hearings.
They returned you to your cell at Ward 240 after the first trial session. Considering that you denied your confessions, didn’t the interrogators come to you again?
No, but less than a month after that trial session, suddenly one day a prison guard told me that my death sentence had been issued and I would soon be executed. What I did not know was that he was lying. I thought everything was over and I was waiting to be executed.
I asked the guard at what time the verdict would be carried out and he said that executions were carried out at 5am. The fear of execution would not allow me to sleep at nights. I stayed awake until 5am, waiting for them to open the cell door to take me for execution. Every day when the morning dawned I was happy I was alive for one more day. The sound of every footstep at night was for me the sound of a guard’s footstep coming to take me to my place of execution. It was a very dreadful time and I still cannot sleep properly.
How long did this situation of uncertainty and waiting for execution last?
It lasted for more than 20 days, until one day they came and took me to the interrogation room of Ward 209. There were two people there that I had not met before. “Why are there so many inconsistencies in your dossier and in your confessions?” they asked. I was frantic more than ever after I had been told the lie about my death sentence. I had nothing more to lose and no hopes whatsoever, so I raised my voice and shouted, “What else do you want from me? I said whatever you wanted me to say and now that my death sentence has been issued I am supposed to confess to something more?”
“We have come here to help you and no death sentence has been issued,” they said, and tried to calm me down.“The case has been taken away from the previous team and we are the new team.” I said, “I have no information that can help you and, in any case, you can see the CCTV recordings for yourselves. I was tortured harshly and I was forced to confess to lies about myself.” They listened and said, “Your situation will change soon. Just tell us the truth.” And I told them the whole story.
Was the judge in the case changed as well when the new team took over?
A few days after this visit, they took me to one of the buildings of Evin’s Sacred Martyr Courthouse. Judge Mohammad Shahriari, the head of Tehran’s Criminal Court, was there. “They have entrusted me with your case and the cases of others accused of assassinating nuclear scientists,” Judge Shahriari told me. “We know that you are innocent and you must cooperate with us to wrap up the case and [so we can] release you.”
For nearly two months after that day, they would take me there a few days each week and I related what had happened, from start to finish. But this time there was no pressure and no torture and I wrote the truth about what I had gone through. The second day that I was taken there I saw many of my other codefendants. Some I recognized from the pictures that they had shown me, for example Behzad Abdoli. I saw a number of women who were my codefendants as well. From the pictures I had seen, I think I recognized Maryam Zargar and Sara Ranjbar.
I just remembered something else. On the same second day that they took me there, Judge Shahriari told me, “Ayub Moslem still thinks that this is the continuation of the same earlier interrogations and trial and keeps repeating, ‘I was a member of the terrorist group and I have already confessed.’ Ayub thinks that if he says what they have done to him and tells the truth he will be tortured again. You talk to him and tell him that the situation has changed. They had forced everybody to make confessions against ‘Michael’, meaning you, and if they see that the same Michael is here and tells them that things are different, they can stop living in terror sooner.”
I talked to Ayub and little by little he came to believe that these people were not from the intelligence ministry and started recounting what he had gone through. Among the defendants there was also a woman who, before her arrest, sold tickets at Argentina Bus Terminal [in Tehran]. She was extremely terrified. I talked to her as well and told her that I was “Michael” and tried to convince her that this was not part of the intelligence ministry’s game plan.
You and a few others were appropriate subjects for the intelligence ministry’s scenario because you worked and lived in Iraqi Kurdistan, but on what basis had they chosen your other codefendants?
It seems that most of the accused in the case were chosen for this scenario because they knew Ms. Maryam Zargar, even if their acquaintance was limited to exchanging hellos or work-related dealings. For instance, Nader Karbasi, who was my cellmate for a few days, was a shareholder of Iranian Royal Travel company, which owned many buses and had an office in Sanandaj [the capital of Iranian Kurdistan]. Karbasi was also the managing director of the company’s branch in Sanandaj and he was arrested along with some of its bus drivers. They even arrested ticket sellers who had somehow come to know Ms. Maryam Zargar because of their work.
What was Maryam Zargar’s own position before her arrest and why did the intelligence ministry bring her into their scenario and then arrest people she knew?
Ms. Zargar was the office manager, employee or advisor (I don’t know exactly which one) to a member of parliament from Rasht. This member of parliament owned a travel agency for people who wanted to travel to Iraq for tourism or pilgrimage. Ms. Zargar managed this company, coordinated travel plans and tickets and because of this got to know many people. In her notebook she wrote down their phone numbers and it seems that many of those arrested were picked from this notebook.
For instance, Neshiman Zaré who, together with her husband Foad Faramarzi appeared on the confessions video, had made the acquaintance of Maryam Zargar by chance. On a bus trip from Tehran to Sanandaj, Neshiman Zaré was sitting next to Zargar and they started chatting. At the invitation of Ms. Zaré, Zargar spent a few hours as a guest in their home in Sanandaj and they exchanged phone numbers. She then continued her journey. This was enough for Neshiman Zaré and Foad Faramarzi to get arrested later.
I really do not know why Ms. Zargar herself was arrested. She worked for a member of parliament from Rasht and, perhaps, she was a victim of [people] settling scores and rivalries among MPs.
When did your solitary confinement end and when did they take you to cells that held two or more inmates?
They took me to a two-inmate cell in Ward 209 soon after they took us to Sacred Martyr Courthouse and Judge Shahriari started his investigations. These cells were a little bigger than solitary cells and were made by removing the partition between two solitary cells. My first cellmate was Mr. Ranjbar who, along with his daughter Sara Ranjbar, were my codefendants. Sara was arrested in Rasht because she was acquainted with Maryam Zargar. Of course, we were cellmates for just close to two weeks.
They moved us around every few weeks and put us in a cell with other codefendants. For a short time a person named Hossein was my cellmate. He said that he had been arrested on [Tehran’s] Jomhouri Avenue as he was taking pictures. Later they charged him with espionage. As far as I know, he was also added to our case. He was not in good mental condition and once tried to commit suicide by drinking dishwashing liquid. His suicide attempt failed and a few days after his return from the hospital they transferred him out of my cell.
For a very short time, less than 10 days, I was cellmates with Ayub Moslem. He was not in a stable mental condition either because he had been brutally tortured. Then I was alone for some time. Then, slowly, from the fall of 2013 to the mid-winter, all my codefendants were released except for me and four others. Of course I cannot be sure. Maryam Zargar might have been released later as well but, among men, only five of us — me, Mazyar Ebrahimi, Ayub Moslem, Arash Kheradkish and Behzad Abdoli — remained and the rest were all released.
Why wouldn’t they release you? Couldn’t you ask Judge Shahriari why they were keeping you and would not release you on bail like others?
During this time Judge Shahriari visited us regularly. I asked him why they were not releasing us. At first he would say, “give us time and we will gradually release you all.” Then, when the guards told us that everybody had been released except for us five, I asked again and again. Judge Shahriari told me that they were under intense pressure to return our case to the intelligence ministry so they could execute us. The intelligence ministry had said that they must have something to show to the public and to the families of the martyrs. “I am trying to have all of you released but you must be patient. I have given them one month to provide evidence of your guilt and if they don’t then I will release you like the others,” he said.
When did they transfer the five of you to a bigger cell and put you together?
From the winter of 2014 to April of that year I had no cellmates. Then they transferred the five of us to a big room in Ward 350. Until July we were cellmates and in late July they released us on bail property bonds. I had to post a property bond worth 500 million tomans [close to $155,000 in 2014 open market exchange rates].
Of course, in the last days before our release we were very restless because of the uncertainty and the delay in our release and protested several times until prison officials came and promised to speed up our release. In any case, they released all of us separately and within a few days of each other. They made me sign a pledge that I would not talk about what had happened because the case was a “military secret.” Later I learned that they had taken my family and had taken the same pledge from them.
Of course, my release was not a stress-free affair or free of anxiety. “We can still kill you,” I was told as I was being released. “If we want we can easily run you over with a car. Don’t you think that we are done with you!” The day after I was released I told this to Judge Shahriari when I had gone to the criminal court to see him to sign a few papers. “Yes,” he said, “such things happen a lot. Be very careful!”
How long did it take you after you were released to return to normal life and work?
After my release I practically imprisoned myself inside my home for over a year. I never left home except to go to Tehran’s Criminal Court to see Judge Shahriari or to go to hospital for treatment. I was living with my mother in Shiraz and I did not dare to go out. Even when I needed a doctor, they would often bring the doctor to visit me at home. I would not even go out to buy cigarettes. When I heard the sound of a car or motorcycle approaching our home I freaked out and my mother had to calm me down. I was afraid that they were coming to take me away again. I was very nervous and I really believed that they wanted to run me over in the street with a car. During that year and a half I took a lot of medication, most of them sedatives and tranquilizers.
But this situation could not go on. I started looking for a job and finally found one in Asaluyeh [a Persian Gulf port] on a project for building a waterfront refinery (Kaveh Petrochemical). The rub was that when the minister of petroleum, [Bijan Namdar] Zangeneh, came to visit the project for the first time I hid myself in a corner because I was afraid that security and intelligence agents were accompanying him and I might get into trouble again.
I must add that at Asaluyeh they asked me to bring a “certificate of no criminal record.” I filled out the application in Shiraz and my mother followed it up. But they told my mother that they could not issue the certificate in Shiraz and we must go to Judge Shahriari in Tehran. After two times traveling to Tehran they issued a certificate that said, “he has no serious criminal record.” They refused to say “he has no criminal record.”
Did you sue the intelligence ministry for damages?
No, I did not sue. During that time maybe close to five times they called me from Judge Shahriari’s office in Tehran to go there. Each time I went I was afraid that I would be arrested again but, well, I had no choice. In the office were intelligence ministry agents who would ask me how I was doing, what I was doing and where I was. That worked on my nerves a lot. Many times I told Shahriari to return me my passport. “I am not political and I will not leave to do political work,” I told him. “I just want to go somewhere and live my life.”
One of these times that I had been summoned to Shahriari’s office, somebody was there who introduced himself as a representative of the judiciary’s security department. He said that they had appropriated a sum to be paid to me as damages. He had a piece of paper in hand and said, “this amount has been calculated from a formula based on the number of days in solitary confinement, total number of days in prison and the sum of lashes.” The gentleman added, “they butchered you in prison. How did you survive?”
He said that the amount was 130 million tomans [$40,000]. “Are you telling me that you are willing to accept 130 million tomans if you spend the same amount of time in prison — even without the torture?” I asked. “This is what we can afford to pay,” he said. “Do as you wish. You can refuse the payment. But if you do accept the payment I will order your passport to be released to you.”
I needed my passport, so I consented. They told me that I was getting the highest amount for damages but, of course, they were lying. Anyhow, they paid me the money after a few weeks. Then I went after my passport and the moment that I received it, I left Iran.
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