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Society & Culture

Saved from the Gallows: The Passports that get you out of Iranian Jails

February 15, 2016
Fereshteh Nasehi
5 min read
Saved from the Gallows: The Passports that get you out of Iranian Jails

“In my country, drug-related charges don’t warrant the death penalty,” says Heydar, a prisoner awaiting the death penalty in Iran. “That’s why I hope I’ll be freed. The Iraqi embassy in Tehran promised my family that they’d pursue my case.”

Heydar, 30, is originally from Iraq. He was caught making crystal meth in a workshop in Shahriar, a city not far from Tehran. For this, he was sentenced to death. Had he been caught in Iraq, his situation would have been different, as Iraq’s judiciary does not hand down the death penalty for drug crimes. He remains hopeful that the government will secure his release, and says that the Iraqi embassy in Tehran has been in touch with Iranian officials.

“The day I was due to be executed along with seven other people, they decided not to go ahead and sent me back from the gallows,” he says. “Tell me, why would they do that if they didn’t want to pardon me?”

But according to Asadi, an Iranian prisoner currently being held at Evin jail, it is unlikely that Heydar will be released. He says the Iranian government is unwilling to listen to foreign governments.

“His optimism is unfounded. The Islamic Republic pays no attention to the empty promises of foreign embassies,” says Asadi. “If he was going to be pardoned, he would’ve been released by now.”

Heydar’s optimism could also shaped somewhat by the fact that, on January 16, Iran did release four foreign prisoners — although they were US-Iranians, part of a prisoner exchange. And their release was the result of a long, complicated set of diplomatic negotiations between the US and Iran, so Heydar’s situation is not comparable. Still, Asadi’s assertion that Iran refuses to listen to other governments is not quite accurate.

Asadi knows what it is like to spend time in a foreign prison. Prior to being at Evin, Asadi was held for a year at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Afghanistan, 32 kilometers west of Baghdad.

“Iraq is engulfed in problems: a civil war, terrorism and poverty,” Asadi says. “So, having an Iraqi passport is worthless even for ordinary Iraqi citizens, let alone for somebody who’s been sentenced to death in a foreign country.”

He says he has little faith in authorities, whether Iranian or Iraqi, and believes they do not have the will to secure the release of foreign prisoners. “When I was in Abu Ghraib, officials from the Iranian Embassy in Iraq visited me several times. They hired an incompetent lawyer who did nothing for my case. But these few visits while I was in prison did keep me happy and optimistic.”

In prisons across Iran, there are hundreds of Afghans whose identities are unknown. In fact, the Afghan embassy and the prisoners’ families are unaware that these people are even in prison. Many of them are discreetly put to death at dawn on charges of murder, rape or serious drug trafficking offences.

Safiollah, who was sentenced to death for allegedly committing armed robbery with a knife, awaits this fate. During the incident in question, a middle-aged woman was killed. But Safiollah claims he is innocent and that he did not hurt the woman. He says she was murdered by his co-conspirators — people he had worked with in a criminal capacity — and who are currently on the run. Unlike Heydar, Safiollah does not believe he will be released.

“The Afghan embassy has no prestige or power here and what’s more, they don’t care about the execution of their citizens,” Safiollah says. “No embassy official has ever come to visit me.”

Rouhi, a former prisoner in the communal Ward 350 at Evin Prison, thinks the fate of an inmate largely depends on their country of origin.  He says Afghan prisoners face discrimination, and holding Afghan citizenship works against a person.

“I personally know two Afghan prisoners who I’m absolutely sure are innocent and whose verdicts were a mistake,” says Rouhi. "And yet they’re waiting to be hanged. But the first time that a Japanese citizen came to our ward, everybody told him that he’d be freed and released quickly because he was Japanese.”

According to Rouhi, those predications came true. “With the help of his country’s embassy, the Japanese citizen was released much sooner than we’d thought and returned to his country without even going on trial.”

Keyvan is from Iran but he spent several years in Japan. While he was living there, he spent nine months in a Japanese jail. “I was there to work but I was an illegal immigrant,” Keyvan explains. “I had to serve my full sentence. They treated me like a criminal even though I was there because of financial difficulties and I was there to do an honest job. I hadn’t committed a crime.”

Keyvan is fluent in Japanese and is in contact with many of the Japanese prisoners currently detained in Iran. According to him, some prison guards discriminate against Japanese prisoners because of their country of origin, something that saddens him greatly.

While the Japanese government works hard to free its nationals in Iranian jails, inmates from Turkmenistan receive less support from their home country. Officials from the Turkmenistan embassy visit prisoners just once every few months, and prisoners rarely benefit from diplomatic efforts. Just recently, a prisoner was sent back to Turkmenistan after he spent many years in prison in Iran but upon his arrival, he was immediately sent to a prison in Turkmenistan, where he remains incarcerated.

“When British or American citizens are arrested, it is a very different situation to when other people are arrested,” says Shayan, another prisoner. “They are treated differently and it has nothing to do with the crime they’ve committed or whether or not they’re innocent. These people are arrested with political objectives in mind so that the security forces can show off their power and then do a prisoner swap. This is inhuman.”

According to Shayan, a man from Slovakia was released not long ago after the Slovakian foreign ministry intervened. But had that not happened, the man in question would have remained in prison just as he did.

“We ate together and served out our sentences in the same cell but ultimately, his passport saved him.”


Read more in the series:

Iran's Political Prisoners: It helps to have a US passport 

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 


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