“I was blindfolded. I told the interrogator I did not know anything. I didn’t know where he was standing but I could hear his footsteps moving around me. My mind followed the sound. Every day they came for me at dawn. The interrogation sometimes lasted until 10am. I had to answer the same question 30 times — in writing, orally, and in writing again. They must have known my answers by heart. They sat me on a chair, always blindfolded. The interrogator repeated his question. It was about my colleague at the newspaper. “Believe me, I don’t know,” I said. “I swear to God that I don’t know. I was not close to him. I used to see him from a distance and we would exchange hellos.” Before I finished the last word he shouted, “What about those lunch hours when you set out together for the pizza shop near the newspaper offices? You think I don’t know about your relationship?” I was holding my breath and before I could come up with a good answer, I received a horrifying blow to my face right over my nose and my right cheek. Blood poured into my throat. The blows continued non-stop until I lost all sense in my face and I could feel no pain.”
These are the words of M.R., a journalist who spent eight months of his three-year sentence in solitary confinement at Evin Prison’s ward 2A, which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards' Intelligence Unit. During those eight months, he says, he lost 26 kilos. He could not sleep and trembled all night under a thin military blanket, fearing the morning interrogation.
The Islamic Republic denies that it tortures prisoners of conscience, but many Iranians remember the names of people who died in custody, among them Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, dissident student Akbar Mohammadi, blogger and journalist Omid Reza Mir Sayafi and blogger Sattar Beheshti.
“I was tortured, but not in the theatrical way that you hear about,” says a political prisoner at Evin’s Ward 8. “Of course, even after one kick and one slap in the face you cannot forget your humiliation. But they did not hang me from the ceiling. Perhaps they treated me more leniently because they did not consider the charges against me too serious.”
“Prisoners have different experiences depending on the charges and the interrogators,” he says. “Of course, the prison officials deny that torture takes place, but a prisoner experiences torture and inhuman treatment at every moment. On the other hand, the opposition media say that Iranian prisons are nothing but torture chambers and that ordinary prisons are the regime’s dungeons. This is also an exaggeration. We know that in the 1980s they subjected members of the Mojahedin [a Marxist-Islamist revolutionary organization] to medieval-style torture and treated them in an inhumane and horrifying manner. But today the conditions are better because they are afraid that abuses would be exposed by the media.”
“I did not experience torture in the sense of being hung from the ceiling and burned with hot pokers,” says Rasoul, an inmate at Rajaei Shahr Prison, “but I received slaps, kicks, and insults without end. Of course, I have seen prisoners who have been tortured. The interrogators treat each person differently. In depends on the prisoner’s beliefs, his power of resistance, his party affiliations, whether the charges against him are political and security-related, and how well known he is. There are two cases in which the interrogators treat the defendant more leniently. The first is when the prisoner cooperates with them and agrees to confess without much resistance. The second is when the accused is well known to the media and the public. In these cases, chances of torture are lower.”
Rayeheh was sentenced to six years in prison because of what she had posted on Facebook. After serving four years of her sentence, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pardoned her. She left Iran a year ago. “Most of the pressure I suffered was meant to force me to make a written and a televised confession,” she says. “Even thinking about what I went through makes me nervous. Please don’t ask about the details. I still cannot sleep well. They only have one goal, and that is to force the defendant to give confessions. In Iran’s backward judicial system, a confession is the most important evidence a court can use. Confessions on camera are aired on TV to intimidate young people and the opposition. They label these confessions, which are extracted through torture, ‘documentaries.’”
Hasan tells me about some prisoners who are willing to “make deals” with their interrogators. I ask him what kinds of deals. “To reduce their sentence, to escape torture, to gain the release of a family member, or to protect a family member outside prison, for transfer to a better ward, or even for a single cigarette,” he says. “A friend of mine who was highly addicted to cigarettes told me how he had cried and begged for a cigarette during interrogations.” But what Hasan remembers most is the case of a young man who was arrested following post-election protests in 2009. “He wept and begged his interrogators to get him out of his solitary cell every day to interrogate or even beat him. He told them that he did not want to be left by himself because he could not take the horrifying isolation of solitary confinement.”