Watching IranWire’s documentary The Treacherous Host: The Kidnapping of Nizar Zakka in Iran reminded human rights activist Reza Khandan of other inmates at Tehran’s Evin Prison who have been thrown in jail on charges of espionage or cooperating with “enemy” governments. “You can take Nizar out of the frame and replace him with others and it would become an endless documentary series about people who are sharing the same fate,” says Khandan, whose wife, Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer and human rights activist, is currently behind bars. He said when Sotoudeh is released she will tell the stories of many women held on similar charges to those Nizar Zakka faced and who endure similar treatment while incarcerated.
Below is the full text of what Reza Khandan wrote to IranWire.
The last night that I was in Evin Prison’s quarantine ward, as I was washing my things, an individual who had clearly been waiting there for some time for me to finish what I was doing came forward and introduced himself. He said he had been a diplomat, but after he supported the Green Movement [following the disputed 2009 presidential election] he had been arrested and charged with espionage. He was wearing black and I learned that he had been granted a leave of absence because his father had passed away. Later, there were many others who were thrown into prison on the same charge but none of them were granted leaves of absence even if their parents had died.
He was the first one to introduce me to Hall 12, a hall on Ward 8 that was in a much worse condition than other halls. It was underground and its facilities were more limited than the common wards. That day I learned that Hall 12 held 53 inmates, almost all charged with espionage or cooperation with enemy governments. Some were Iranians, some were foreigners and some were dual nationals.
As I watched Maziar Bahari’s The Treacherous Host my mind wandered back over the corridors, the library, the exercise yard, the common rooms and that four-inmate cell in the 209 Detention Center.
The prisoners who have been charged with espionage and working with enemy governments were not confined only to Hall 12. You could find them in every ward, so I got the chance to talk to many of them. But the interesting thing was that when they talked about charges against them and how they had been arrested it felt that they were all the same person.
Now that I have seen the documentary I have learned that they share the same experience and the same feelings. They are enraged and disgusted when they talk about the whole Iranian bureaucratic, judiciary and security system and when they tell you how this system, which they had trusted, has been allowed to destroy their lives or ruin one of the best times in their lives. And when they talk about how they had been arrested, you can clearly see their bewilderment, their amazement and their trembling.
Many of those who have been arrested on such charges were never politically active and, consequently, never expected to be arrested. For a long time, many of them believed that there must have been a mistake and that things would work out. They believed that they must try harder to prove that they are innocent and other thoughts like that. They cannot believe that a system that they had trusted would so easily arrest them and sentence them to years and years in prison.
Whenever they talk about their innocence they turn into children who are innocently trying to prove that they are not guilty.
The Treacherous Host documentary is a true portrayal of hostage-taking. You can take Nizar out of the frame and replace him with others and it would become an endless documentary series about people who are sharing the same fate.
“You thought your country had just one government”
One day, after meeting with my family, I returned to the ward. The moment I stepped into the exercise yard, I noticed a young man who was standing among a group of my friends. He was a rather big man with a lot of curly, long hair and the face of an artist.
With a smile on his face, he waved at me from a distance. “Hello, Mr. Khandan,” he said. “I am Kiumars Marzban. I interviewed you for Radio Zamaneh.” Later on, when I had a lengthy talk with him, I learned that he had made the mistake of trusting Iran’s security establishment. He had wanted to return to his country and work in arts and culture and stay away from politics. A security agency had assured him that he would have no problems if he returned, but another intelligence agency had arrested him and he had been sentenced to over 23 years in prison. “Your problem was that you thought your country had only one government,” I told him in all honesty. “You got the permission of one them but not from the second, and it was the second one that arrested you.”
But he was angrier at himself because he had trusted them enough to leave a safe country and come to a place where now he would have to spend a good part of his life behind bars.
From a Round Face to a Thin One
I had seen a picture of Dr. Ahmad Reza Jalali [an Iranian-Swedish disaster medicine doctor who has been sentenced to death on the charge of spying for Israel] with a round face and a relatively stout body. I arranged to meet him at the library of Ward 4. He usually sat at the first desk and read an English-language newspaper published in Iran. The moment we started talking I noticed his mother tongue was Turkish. He was from Sarab [in East Azerbaijan]. So I switched to “channel one” — because for everybody “channel one” is his mother tongue. The first time I met him I was shocked. Both his face and his body were half the size of what I had seen in the picture.
He told me about his work in Iran, his life outside Iran, his arrest outside Tehran’s Atieh Hospital and the interrogations in a hotel room. Whenever he wanted to say he was innocent of a charge that had been brought against him, he sincerely swore on the life of his children as though I believed that he was guilty and he wanted to defend himself against the charge.
“When I watched the video of my confessions in my cell I was shocked,” he said. “Did I really said these things, I asked myself?” They had cut and stitched together his words in a way that had turned into a strange confession against himself. He has been on death row for some years now and that is why his body has shrunk and is not returning to normal.
Dr. Mohammad Ali Babapour’s field is “human resources” and when he did a study about drug addiction among workers in Iran [at the time he was a teacher at Tehran’s Amin Police Academy] he arrived at a number that was shocking. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for spying for an enemy government. He still cannot believe that he was arrested only a few days after his wedding and now his young wife will have to wait 10 years for him to return.
Babapour finds the charge ridiculous. “Whenever Masoud comes across me in the hallway he tells me ‘Hello, dear colleague!’” Masoud Kiani is a dentist who was also charged with cooperating with enemy governments and he called Babapour “colleague” for fun, as a playful way of saying that “we both are spies.”
One night, a few days after Babapour was brought into the ward, his name was announced on the loudspeaker, telling him that he was going to court. He was taken to court in the morning but they did not even remove the handcuff that joined him to a guard. While he was standing up, the judge of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court gave him a piece of paper to read. “After 40 or 50 seconds, when I had read part of it, he pulled the paper out of my hands and said ‘get out,’” said Babapour. In response to the request to settle bail, the judge told him, “you are a spy and they will execute you right here on the street.”
“Not all trials are like that!”
Later on I told Hamidi-Rad, the judiciary official at Evin Prison, the story of this trial and said that participating in such a trial is meaningless. He did not say that the story was a lie but did say, “not all trials are like this,” as though “sometimes” was all right.
Siamak Namazi was among those who was very mad at them. While he was blindfolded, he had been pushed down the stairs and he had landed on his head. When he removed his blindfold, he told me, “I found out that if I had landed a little bit to the side my brain would have been shattered. That is when it dawned on me that there is no brain in their skulls.”
For several months his father Baquer Namazi was in a cell next to him, but they did not know it. Siamak was not allowed to shave for 70 days and then they took him to the courthouse without letting him shave. When the examining magistrate saw Siamak he shouted, “what is this?” and shouted a little more at the guards. Of course, he had no sympathy for Siamak but just wanted to pretend that he was a good magistrate and it was the fault of the guards that Siamak looked like that, although he knew very well what was happening in those cells.
Once we were going to meet visitors and the guard officer asked us our names and the charges against us. We always answered that “we are not [national] security cases. Our charges are political.” When he asked Siamak, he did not even say “political.” He raised his hand and said “I am a hostage.”
Mohammad Hossein Mollanejhad was in Cell 209. Once in a while, after reading the Koran, he would sigh deeply and assured himself that soon enough things would work out. He would only forget his grief and sorrow a little bit when he was talking [in Arabic] to a cellmate of ours who was an Iranian but had lived in Iraq.
When asked about the charge against him, he said that he had been accused of helping to smuggle 30,000 packs, each containing $10 million, from Iran to Iraq to set up a bank. He had the cellphone numbers for [one of the] Larijani [brothers] and Ghasem Soleimani and had told the interrogator to allow him to call them instead of calling his wife and the problem would be solved. Mollanejhad was saying, “how can one smuggle so much money in one bundle?” Then we used the margin of a newspaper to calculate what exactly this much money means. How many times it is bigger than the whole budget of Iran? How many times it is bigger than this or that?
Mohammad Hossein had a Master’s degree in electrical engineering. He had set up a company in Dubai and was in the business of buying and selling electrical parts. Later on, his sister told me that he had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for working with enemy governments.
One of the most spirited inmates who was in Ward 4 on the same charges was Mr. Ali Kebrit-Saz Tavakoli. His grandfather was the founder of Tavakoli Match Company [in 1918] and his father had also founded a large number of important factories in Iran. He was charged with cooperation with an enemy government as well.
The women’s ward at Evin has numerous inmates who are imprisoned on similar charges. Two of them were environmental activists but I will let Nasrin [Sotoudeh] tell their stories when she is released.
So many educated spies?
I say to myself: If we have so many educated spies who have been arrested, then the real number of spies must be tens of times higher than this, because not all spies are caught — perhaps one in a thousand. And the interesting thing is that most of those arrested are Iranians. If they are truly guilty of the charges, shouldn’t the government ask itself, “why are so many educated citizens of Iran spying against the interests of their own country?”
Nizar’s words shocked me again. But the most shocking part of the documentary was the indifferent and cold reaction of the host [Shahindokht Molaverdi] who had invited him as her guest, but the security establishment of her government had arrested him and had destroyed four years of his life even though he had done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, her answers to the moral questions posed by Nizar — who was somewhat agitated but, of course, expected a few logical and appropriate answers — were so barren that they did not do anything to diminish the raging flames of his anger.