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The Truth: A Mother, a Son on Death Row, and a 40-Year-Old Propaganda Film

September 6, 2021
Aida Ghajar
13 min read
A film repeatedly deployed by the IRIB since it was shot in 1981 shows Mahmud Tariqoeslami begging his mother for help, shortly before his execution. In fact, it was a set-up
A film repeatedly deployed by the IRIB since it was shot in 1981 shows Mahmud Tariqoeslami begging his mother for help, shortly before his execution. In fact, it was a set-up

The grainy, black-and-white film depicts a mother and son sitting in front of each other at a table. The son is crying and pleading with the woman, who is swathed in the traditional black chador. But she can only tell him: “When you’ve waged war against God, I no longer want you.” Warning him of possible “execution”, she tells him that he must “repent”.

This short video was aired on TV last week by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. A voiceover at the beginning declares: “Some would even give up on their children for the peace of the country and the nation.”

What the announcer does not say is that both mother and son have been deceived. He does not say the mother agreed to cooperate with torturers, without her son’s knowledge, and to ask him to repent in exchange for the promise that he would not be executed. Despite her efforts, a few short months later this same son was put in front of a firing squad in Kashefi Garden in Isfahan, the same place they had been filmed in.

The announcer also omits to mention that this man, Mahmud Tariqoleslami, was well known for being a hardy prisoner. He never confessed to anything, even under ruthless torture that diminished his body to that of a 13-year-old boy.

The first time this film aired was 40 years ago, in 1981. Since then it has been broadcast over and over on state TV and in Iranian prisons. Mahmud’s mother is known only as “Tariqoleslami’s Mother” and most people don’t know who she was, but for four decades the Islamic Republic has portrayed her as the “model mother” who handed her own son over to the firing squad. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Real Story of Tariqoeslami’s Mother and her Son

Mahmud’s cellmates remember what he told them about his mother: “If she wasn’t a woman, she could have become a religious authority.” She grew up in a pious, well-heeled merchant family and for years studied at a school run by Ms. Amin: a woman whose name everyone in Isfahan then knew, one of the most famous and influential religious teachers in the city, who had received an extensive education in fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence.

But as well as being devout, she was a devoted mother. Even before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Mahmud was already in Shah’s jails, she had visited him and managed to get his sentence reduced from death to life imprisonment using her family’s influence, wealth and connections with the Shah’s security establishment.

At the time she was a full-fledged supporter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who later became the founder of the Islamic Republic. After the Islamic Revolution, with her son back in jail, she again exerted what influence she had to go and visit him. It was in this way that agents of the Islamic Republic co-opted her into a plan that ultimately saw her son executed on August 8, 1981, and his legacy turned into a propaganda video.

Mahmud was born in Isfahan in 1948. His father was a textile merchant at Isfahan’s bazaar. In 1963, at the age of just 15, he was arrested for distributing Ayatollah Khomeini’s declaration denouncing the Shah and his then-reform program, known as the White Revolution. But he was later released thanks to the mediation of influential figures connected to his family.

After starting university, Mahmud became attached to the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) and began his semi-secret political life, while holding down a job as a worker for Isfahan Aida Food Industries. Then in 1975, a bomb attack in which Mahmud had played no role saw security agents go house to house, looking for culprits. He was arrested nonetheless for having a book entitled The Palestinian Resistance Movement in his home.

From the Clutches of One Regime to Another

The newspaper Kayhan published his name in the context of being a “saboteur” who had been killed in a shootout with security agents. But Mahmud was alive, and refused to speak under torture from Savak, the Shah’s secret police. He was later transferred from Isfahan to the Anti-Sabotage Joint Committee’s detention center in Tehran. It was there he first met Hasan Hessam, a member of Worker’s Way, a Marxist-Leninist underground organization, who was also a political prisoner under the Shah and later the Islamic Republic.

Hessam survived that dark time. In his own memoirs, he would later write of Mahmud: “In the mornings, in the same room where they were interrogating him, they would hang him from the ceiling by his wrists. While he was hanging, they would beat his feet and his body with cable and would put out their cigarettes on his body. When he passed out they would put a chair under his feet and, without untying his hands, would pour cold water on him until he regained consciousness. After an hour, they would start the whole thing over again. Sometimes, when the interrogators became infuriated, they would take him to [another room], tie him to the bed and flog him unconscious. Or they would tie him to ‘Apollo’ [a metal chair and a metal hood used for torture, including electric shocks] or handcuff him [with one hand over the shoulder and the other from the back] on the balcony to wait for the interrogator.”

The agents tortured Mahmud so brutally that in the end, he had to be taken to the police hospital. There, using their connections, his parents managed to get his sentence commuted to life in jail. In January 1979, shortly before the downfall of the Shah’s regime, he and other prisoners of conscience were released. Mahmud then resumed his political activities and joined Hessam in the Worker’s Way organization.

On July 5, 1981, the fledgling Islamic Republic’s security agents raided his home, arrested him and began torturing him anew. According to his cellmates, Mahmud was under the illusion that this time around, too, he could convince his mother to use her influence and save his life. But the fanatics now in charge regarded Mahmud and people like him as “enemies of God”. In a TV interview, Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, a Revolutionary Court judge in Tehran, ordered that even injured political prisoners “must be finished off”.

A Symbol of Resistance on Both Sides

A few months after his arrest, Mahmud was seated in front of his mother. He cried and tried to influence her into saving his life while her mother herself was fooled by agents of the Islamic Republic. While inside, he had continued to resist torture so stoically that after his execution, some interrogators would shout at Marxist prisoners who didn’t talk: “You think you are Mahmud Tariqoleslami?”

He also achieved emblematic status with resistance movements outside the prison walls. “A long time after the execution of Comrade Mahmud, all his connections with the organization and all the houses and organizers to whom Mahmud had access were kept safe  - because he was Mahmud Tariqoleslami and he had not talked,” Hasan Hessam later wrote. “It was later reported that after watching the video of his meeting with his mother on the prison TV, he had had a stroke and half his body was paralyzed. It was also reported that Mahmud’s body had been so broken down and diminished by torture it looked like a body of a boy of 13 or 14. But his morale was very strong.”

Resisting the Regimes’ Medieval Torture Methods

Hessam spent eight and a half years in jail and is still alive today. He told IranWire about his first meeting with Mahmud in 1975, at a time when he himself was unable to walk. As a young man, he was having to put his hands in his slippers and drag his buttocks along the floor to get around Ward 3 of the Anti-Sabotage Joint Committee’s detention center. One day the door opened, and a tall young man was thrown into the cell. Mahmud’s head showed signs of torture and was bandaged in two places. Dried blood was still stuck next to his left ear and the skin under both of his eyes was black from burst blood vessels. The backs of his hands and his feet were bloodstained and inflamed.

Starting in 1973, after a number of assassinations including that of a Savak official, and with the emergence of guerrilla movements in Iran, violence in the Shah’s prison’s had intensified. The torturers were allowed to be brutal beyond limit. Sometimes a person was arrested and tortured simply for owning a work by Maxim Gorky, Hessam said.

The pair were cellmates for more than a month. Hessam was tortured for his connections with the MEK. So severely were his feet flogged that the flesh was gone and the tendons were exposed. They would bandage his feet and take him to hospital to have the bandages changed, but sometimes they would then flog his bandaged feet. Hessam was eventually sentenced to seven years in prison. Mahmud was sentenced to death.

Two years later, in the spring of 1977, Mahmud Tariqoleslami and Hasan Hessam met again: this time in Ward 2 of Evin Prison. The government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was in retreat and had allowed the International red Cross to inspect Shah’s prisons. Hundreds of prisoners whose bodies were marked by torture were hidden from view. It was the time of Jimmy Carter, “a strange time”, says Hessam: “In the same buildings where we had been tortured, and with our bodies carrying signs of torture and cigarette burns, they would let us walk around the balcony with our books and cigarette boxes: the same balconies where they had cut us to shreds. It was totally paradoxical. At last our existence was revealed and the Red Cross officials visited us. We told them about the tortures we had been through. They put us on a bus and took us to Ward 4 of Qasr Prison, whose warden was Colonel Yahyaei. One prisoner showed his feet, another the back of his neck.

“Now they say there was no torture in the time of the Shah. I myself was one of those subjected to brutal torture. During that time, they would tear the prisoners apart. But Mahmud never gave in to the interrogators and never gave them any information, not in the Shah’s prison, and not in the Islamic Republic’s prison.”

According to Hessam, Mahmud would play games with the interrogators to stave off the assaults: “He never gave them the information that they wanted. For a whole year he was in solitary confinement. Every time they brought in a new person who gave them the information they wanted, they would also flog Mahmud. But he stayed silent for so long that the interrogator would spill the information and Mahmud would say: ‘I’d forgotten that.’”

Even after the video was shown on the prison TV, Hessam said, “he went crazy but still refused to give them any information, and refused to meet his mother again. A few months later he was executed. We heard that after hearing the news of her son’s execution, his mother had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.”

An Approach Driven by Ideology

The Islamic Republic began using political prisoners’ mothers as a propaganda tool from the early 1980s onwards, in a bid to encourage families to inform on their children and to dishearten those who stood by their children and their beliefs. “The religious fanaticism of Comrade Mahmud’s mother, and her devotion to the regime, was well-known enough for the Islamic Republic to present her to the society as the ‘model mother’,” Hessam said. “With the cooperation of this ‘model mother’ they set up the meeting between the two in Kashefi Garden and beforehand, installed cameras and sound equipment. Comrade Mahmud was the only person who did not know about this.”

Then the inmates learned Mahmud had been executed shortly after the video was aired. To the chagrin of many, Worker’s Way an article attacking him. “We didn’t know,” Hessam said. “We thought Mahmud had caved in and betrayed his ideals. We thought he was a disgrace, especially after that video was aired. The editorial board of Worker’s Way wrote a stupid article. Then we got more accurate information from the prison. His cellmates were gradually released from prison and told the truth about how he had resisted. Worker’s Way later apologized.”

In his own experience, Hasan Hessam said, treatment of political prisoners under the Shah and the Islamic Republic was quite similar. The main difference is in the ideology behind the torture. “The Islamic Republic’s system of torture was a copy of the system at the time of Mohammad Reza Shah. They didn’t kill some of the Shah’s torturers and they taught the Islamic Republic agents. Things like ‘Apollo’ came from American and Israeli security agencies. During the Shah’s regime, many of the guerrillas did not last until execution but died under torture, like others under the Islamic Republic.”

Hessam was only held prisoner of the Islamic Republic for eight and a half months. There was, he says, a key distinction between the two systems: “Under the Shah, after the interrogations and torture were over, the prisoner simply waited out his sentence. But a prisoner in the Islamic Republic is never safe. Don’t forget ‘Haj Davoud grave’ many prisoners, men and women, have written about. This method crushed many people psychologically. Torture never stops. As you know, during the 1988 mass executions many of those who were killed had been simply sentenced to prison and had even served their time.”

In addition, Hessam says, “During the Shah’s time the torturers were not ideological. They unleashed that infernal violence for the sake of their jobs. Under the Islamic Republic, the torturers were not only wretched mercenaries: they also thought they were flogging in the name of God.

“We are, of course, not talking about today’s torturers, who are also after money. At that time, they prayed before torturing. They beat your feet as hard as they could because they believed the prisoner was an enemy of God. But let me tell you one thing: The Islamic Republic is the legitimate child of the Shah’s regime. Under the Shah no opposition group was allowed to exist. The only group that was allowed to grow and received salaries from the Religious Endowments Organization was the reactionary clergy. And after the revolution, the only group that had established itself in villages thanks to the Shah’s financial support was the same clergy.”

For 40 years now, that same clergy has used the video of a staged meeting between mother and so to try to prove its arcane principles are supported in Iran. In fact, it was nothing but a sham: tempered only by those survivors who are still willing to reveal the truth behind the hidden cameras.


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