Following the news that Iran released four dual Iranian-US nationals, IranWire spoke to former cellmates of the prisoners about the men, and to other political prisoners about what they thought the release meant for them. Our reporter was able to secure exclusive access to the prisoners via secure channels.
Iran’s release of Amir Hekmati, Jason Rezaian, and two other dual Iranian-US nationals has raised tentative hopes among other political prisoners in Iran that they might also be freed, although many of them have expressed doubts about the likelihood of this happening.
"Of course we are happy about our friends' release. But they only released those who were supported by a powerful government,” said one political prisoner. “There are people in cells next to us who will remain here despite being totally innocent because they lack any support from the government and don’t live under a just system. The system that should support them has instead put them in jail. We welcome the release of our friends and would like to see it as a sign of hope that we might also be given our freedom, but the discrimination against us cannot be ignored.”
Saeed Abedini, Amir Mirzaii Hekmati, Jason Rezaian and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari were released on January 16. All hold dual Iranian-US nationality.
In addition to not having leverage because they only hold an Iranian passport, the inmates say that Iran’s prisons are lawless and that the rights of prisoners are routinely violated. Prison officials repeatedly ignore laws pertaining to political prisoners, and have failed to implement Article 134 of Iran’s penal code, which defines what constitutes a political prisoner. Many prisoners jailed on political grounds would be entitled to freedom if judicial authorities followed the code, they said.
Cellmates Share their Memories
Jason Rezaian’s former cellmate talked about the pressure Rezaian was under while in prison, and said that he had been subjected to long interrogations that had seriously damaged his spirit. "Jason felt better when he was granted permission to have books. His friends sent them to him, and he could pass the time reading them. But the impact of the solitary cell and long interrogations was obvious in his face. We found about their release on TV. We were very happy.”
He said Rezaian and the other prisoners had been told they would be released soon, but they had not been given a date. “Maybe they did not expect it to be so soon. Their washed clothes are still hanging on clothes racks, and they did not have time to pack up their stuff. Saeed's Bible, Jason's journals and Amir's medical records are still at the prison."
A former cellmate of Amir Hekmati expressed his happiness at the news that he had been freed. The inmate, going by the name “S.R.,” said Hekmati had suffered enormously in prison and was in a poor mental state during his last days in prison. He also mentioned the fact that Hekmati had written to prison authorities to request his release.
"I am sure Amir was not a spy,” S.R. said. “He had a straightforward character. He was into sports. I did different exercises with him for months. His calm and gentle character was nothing you would associate with a spy. He read books in his free time, mainly English dramas, because he could not read Persian. Sometime his relatives sent Newsweek and TIME magazine for him."
Journalist Siamak Ghaderi, who also knew Hekmati in prison, agreed there was no way Hekmati could be a spy. "Amir played chess well and was trusted by the other inmates,” he told IranWire. “He was not a person of betrayal. He was very calm and did productive things to pass the time.”
Ghaderi said he spent two years of his prison term in the same ward as Hekmati. "Amir was threatened with execution after he was interrogated. He had accepted all they wanted, under pressure. But after a while, when he had got over the shock, naturally he denied all his confessions.”
Ghaderi also remembered other prisoners during his time in jail, including Abdolfatah Soltani, Saeed Madani, Mohammad Reza Otufat. All remain in prison. “These people have an honor medal in public opinion, but no government supports them. Mr Rouhani promised that he would enhance the value of the Iranian passport.” He says that the government has clearly prioritized the release of the dual nationals for political reasons. “This is good in its own way. But this is not enough. We must demand to know what will happen to other decent individuals who remain in jail.”
"I am happy that he has been released,” said a former cellmate of Saeed Abedini, the Christian priest who was also released on January 16 . “I usually saw him in a T-shirt with the image of his two children printed on it. Even when he did not wear it, he always had it with him. He used to sit at a table in the middle of the prison hosseinieh [mosque] and read the Bible for hours, taking notes."
"Saeed Abedini played chess well. He exercised a lot when we had breaks. He also answered the religious questions of interested inmates. We always saw him studying."
Another prisoner, Reza, spoke about Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini, both of whom he shared a ward with for a few months.: "Amir did not even how to cook Iranian food. He was not good with prison food. Amir and Saeed Abedini did not take part in any of the political or protest activities of prisoners. They did not sign any statements."
"Yesterday morning, they suddenly called Saeed to go to the intelligence section at Rajaii Shahr Prison,” another prisoner told IranWire. “He did not take any of his belongings with him. So he was not aware that he was going to be released, or if he was, he did not tell us about it. He did not return to the political ward. When we asked about him, they said they had taken him to Evin Prison. And then we heard that he had been released."
I asked Reza how the news reached Rajai Shahr Prison so fast. "We found out from the subtitles on a TV news program,” he said.
Reza also said that the prisoners knew their release was imminent.
"Last week, the prosecutor deputy, Abbas Hajilu, told these prisoners they were going to be released and asked them to write a letter requesting that prison authorities release them. So some prisoners knew they would soon be released."
Hope for other prisoners?
The release of the four men met with excitement and enthusiasm among Iran’s political prisoners, offering hope that the situation might improve for them too.
Some prison authorities have also introduced recent measures that have increased hope among inmates jailed for political reasons.
For example, the families of several political prisoners in the women’s ward at Evin Prison have reported that the authorities have given inmates telephones and allowed them to contact their families and arrange for them to visit.
“Inmates are talking about the release of some of the political prisoners here,” one prisoner told me. “It is not impossible that such a thing could happen, because now the Islamic Republic has released those people whom it claimed were spying for foreign countries. They might release more prisoners and implement Article 134 of the penal code. If they did that, many political prisoners could be freed. There is no justification for keeping honest and innocent individuals in prison. They cannot be ignored.”
I talked to another prisoner at Rahai Shahr prison who said everyone was talking about the release and what it might mean for them. She said she felt the release of prisoners who hold both US and Iranian citizenship showed just how Iran regarded its responsibilities when it came to honoring human rights. "The return of these prisoners to society is good news, but there are prisoners whose release dates have passed, or who should not be in prison because of their medical conditions,” she said. “There are others who have been tortured for months or been in solitary confinement for long periods of time. Nobody mentions them."
The Rajai Shahr prisoner said that she and other prisoners are well aware of the motivation behind the release of the four Iranian-Americans: It was a political move and not about human rights. But she said that, despite the fact that the release was part of an exchange agreed with the United States, she is still hopeful that the development can have a positive impact on her situation, and the situation of other Iranian political prisoners.
Jason Rezaian’ former cellmate laughed when I asked him about what he thought would happen next. He said he felt a mixture of happiness at the news of the release and bitterness because he and others are still in jail. "I wish they had released all of us, and that we could all leave our clothes to dry here on the prison’s clothes racks."
Read more in the series:
The Rape Ward at Tehran’s Rajai Shahr Prison
An Unlikely Classroom: Learning English in an Iranian Prison
A Baha’i Brought an Al Qaeda Man in from the Cold
Saved from the Gallows: The Passports that get you out of Iranian Jails