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Society & Culture

Iran’s Elections: The View from Prison

March 4, 2016
Fereshteh Nasehi
7 min read
Iran’s Elections: The View from Prison
Iran’s Elections: The View from Prison
Iran’s Elections: The View from Prison
Iran’s Elections: The View from Prison

When election fever hit Iran, parts of the country’s prison population also paid close attention — tuning into news, following rumors, and looking out for the latest results. Allowed to vote as long as they presented the required identification cards, many prisoners got ready to cast their ballots.

“From Saturday morning, the prison’s public announcement system began announcing election results as they came in,” said Hossein, an inmate at Evin Prison’s ward for political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. He said inmates, especially those who supported reformists, were awake and trying to get as much information as they could. 

But when the day came, not everyone had access to the mobile ballot boxes doing the rounds.

“On the day of the elections some political prisoners went to the officer on duty and told him they wanted to vote,” said Hossein. “The officer called the deputy head of the prison and told prisoners to get their identification cards ready. People waited but nothing happened. Then one of the officers came in and showed his ink-stained finger and said there were no plans to bring the ballot box into the security ward.”

But leading up to February 26, Hossein said many inmates did believe elections could bring about change. “Reformists believe the only way to get out of the current impasse is to participate in the elections,” he said. But there were others who had no faith in the elections and believed it amounted to a diktat, including many political prisoners. Many of them “showed no reactions before or after the elections,” Hossein said. “For them, life continued as before.”

Most inmates serving sentences for serious crimes including murder and drugs charges — often punishable by death — were also lackluster in the days before the elections, despite encouragement from officials that they participate. Up to a month before elections, Ghezel Hesar Prison’s Friday Prayers leader appealed to inmates to vote, as did various cultural officials.

A week before elections, prison officials at Ghezel Hesar allowed the families of inmates to bring prisoners their ID cards. According to inmates, the mobile ballot boxes were made available to them. But most prisoners held in the prison on charges not related to national security were not willing or interested in participating.

In fact, some prisoners were fed up with people talking to them about exercising their right to vote and asked that they be left alone. Politics, they said, were not for them. “What difference does it make who gets elected?” one prisoner asked when I tried to solicit his views. “Whoever wins, it will make no difference here. Ask anybody; they’ll tell you the same thing. This is not the outside world where everybody is beating everybody else over the head with the elections. No matter who comes out on top, we will not have any extra days for furlough [permission to leave the prison on a temporary basis]. Nobody is going to start caring about the cold or the poor quality of food, or about any of the injustices in the prison.”

I told the prisoner who had been so against voting that political prisoners did tend to vote, despite the fact that they were also kept in poor conditions — in some cases, even worse than other prisoners. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “What percentage of inmates are in the security ward? In any case, I neither listen to the news nor follow these issues. It is just a distraction designed to rob people.”

Nader, an inmate from the western provincial capital of Kermanshah accused of killing his uncle’s wife during a family quarrel, says he did not vote in the February 26 elections. A lower court has sentenced him to death, and he has appealed the decision.  “To be honest, I do not care who comes and who goes. When the bad goes out, the worse comes in. Every time I have voted I have been sorry afterwards. For the past 30 years they have condemned the nation to death. What is a death sentence? A hungry nation is a nation sentenced to death. You should be here to understand the depth of the tragedy.”

I tell Nader that many people believe participating in elections, that it can change laws and help implement reforms. “Ma’am,” Nader said, “I hope you will not be offended when I say these words come from people who have it easy. It is all nonsense, all hot air. At first they have a bunch of beautiful slogans, but when ignorant people elect them, they start plundering. Why should I vote when I am going to be executed in the end? No matter how many times I tell the judge that it was momentary insanity during a heated quarrel and that I stabbed my uncle’s wife once, he does not listen. If I had wanted to kill her I would not have taken her to the hospital. What kind of a law is this?”

R.A., an inmate at the security ward at Evin Prison, said that prisoners supporting reformists were the most likely to vote. “They imagine that by casting their ballots they can find a little place for themselves in the governing system and improve the lot of society,” he said. He agreed that many political prisoners believed that voting could make a difference. Other prisoners voted — including “government employees, bank employees, workers and military people” — because they thought it would give them an easier time after they were released.   

R.A. remembered back to the 2013 presidential election. “The reformists in the prison encouraged us to vote,” he said. “Supporters of the Green Movement, members of the Freedom Movement and National-Religious Coalition members did too. They did it again in the parliamentary elections — even though the majority of prisoners could not vote because they didn’t have their IDs. There was enthusiasm when Rouhani got elected.” He said it was important to vote, just to keep from the situation getting any worse. “We must stand up against the hardliners and prevent a repeat of what happened after 2000,” he said, referring to 2004, when extreme conservatives defeated reformists in parliamentary elections.

According to R.A., inmates who support the People’s Mojahedin Organization tend not to participate in elections. “They do not recognize the legitimacy of the regime and regard the elections as a sideshow. They believe this is an appointment process, not an election. Likewise, supporters of the monarchy, secessionists and most Baha’is do not vote.”

Before being transferred to Rajaei Shahr Prison, Alireza was an inmate at Evin’s Ward 209, which is run by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. “The interrogator kept bothering me because there was no elections stamp on my ID booklet — he beat me for it,” he said. “But when he noticed that it was a replacement ID, he started pressuring me to tell him who I had voted for. I told him it was personal and even the supreme leader keeps his vote secret. The interrogator hit me hard on the face. I think he wanted to make sure I had not voted for reformists.”

Alireza said he was not allowed to vote in presidential elections because he was in solitary confinement at the time. “They don’t allow prisoners in solitary confinement or those in the middle of being interrogated to vote. Not only that, it is very likely that these people have not even been registered as prisoners anyway.”

A political prisoner called Navid told me he shared a ward with ordinary prisoners for two years. Many of them felt they could gain support from prison guards by voting. “They are not interested in politics,” he said, though they might watch the news leading up to an election. “They are worried sick about their own lives. Their priority lies with the most basic rights — most of which they are denied while in prison.”


Related articles:

Evin Prison TV: More Music, Less Censorship

An Unlikely Classroom: Learning English in an Iranian Prison

The Rape Ward at Tehran’s Rajai Shahr Prison 

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

First Election Results: Good News for Rouhani?


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