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Society & Culture

Caught up in Clashes: Iran’s Afghan “Green Movement” Prisoners

April 21, 2016
Fereshteh Nasehi
6 min read
Caught up in Clashes: Iran’s Afghan “Green Movement” Prisoners
Many Afghan workers were arrested in 2009, accused of "assisting rioters"
Many Afghan workers were arrested in 2009, accused of "assisting rioters"

Nabi, a laborer from Afghanistan, was arrested in Tehran on December 26, 2009.

 “I was looking for work between Revolution Avenue and Azadi Square — painting walls, carrying stuff, house cleaning or any odd job,” he says, remembering the day he was arrested. “At the corner of Moeen Street, a large crowd was milling around. I was trying to make my way through when somebody grabbed me from behind. Before I knew it I was handcuffed. They beat me and kicked me into a van. More than 20 people were already crammed together in the van. Most of them had facial injuries. They took us first to the police station nearby and then to Ward 240 at Evin Prison.”

Nabi’s story is not especially strange or uncommon, especially for Afghans living in the capital — particularly for those Afghans arrested in the unrest of late 2009, when street protests led to incarceration, both after the contested presidential election in June and later that year. There are no official statistics concerning the number of Afghans accidentally caught in the net in that year's violent aftermath of Iran’s 2009, and it is unclear how many Afghans remain in prison. 

“There were many people sitting in the ward’s hallways,” Nabi says. “They interrogated us for an hour. Three days later, they told us to sign a pledge and post a bail of 20 million tomans ($6,700). Others who had families in Iran posted the bail and were released, but they kept me at Evin. I repeatedly told them that I had nothing to do with anything and I had no family in Iran, but they would not take my word for it. Eventually they figured it out and released me after I signed a commitment.”

But not all Afghans arrested in 2009 were as lucky as Nabi. Ferdows, who has lived in Iran since he was six, tells me in fluent Persian that a few days after being arrested, he was sent back to Afghanistan. He was forced to return to Iran by crossing the border illegally.

“I was working as the caretaker of a half-finished building in a side street near Azadi Square,” he says. “There was a little room in the yard of the building where I spent my days and nights. That day, the voices of the demonstrators were louder. The street where I was was not very close to where the demonstrations usually took place, but sometimes during the unrest, demonstrators trying to escape and pursuing security forces would spill over into the street. That day the noise was loud, but I was doing my daily chores and not paying much attention, when a few scared people rushed into the building. Before I could tell them this was private property and prevent them from entering, uniformed police and plainclothes agents followed them in. They arrested me for sheltering “rioters”. The interesting thing was that they told me that my crime was more serious than the protesters’ crime because I had given refuge to counter-revolutionary forces.”

Without the presence of a lawyer, the lower Revolutionary Court sentenced Ferdows to three and a half years’ imprisonment. “What scared me most,” he says, “was that during interrogations, the interrogator kept threatening me that they were going to transfer me to Kahrizak Detention Center, from which I would never come back alive.”

The appeals court exchanged his prison sentence to a repatriation order to Afghanistan. Early one morning, security agents carried out the sentence and handed him over to Afghan border guards.

After a while, Ferdows snuck back into Iran. He now lives in Tehran and works at a big supermarket in the northern part of the capital.  Nabi, however, did not stay free for long. He is now back in prison for dealing drugs.


“Armed” Assistance to Protesters

“The farce went so far that in the very early days of the arrests, they transferred two Afghan nationals to Ward 350 who had no idea of what was going on,” a long-time inmate at the ward, reserved for political prisoners, told IranWire. “They presented them as ‘Green Movement’ detainees. Even they themselves thought it was a big joke.” The prisoner who reported this asked to remain anonymous.

Rahman A., a prisoner at Evin’s Ward 7 for financial offenders, has another story. “I was an employee of a security organization, so they kept me at ward 209,” he told IranWire. “In the days following the election, they brought in a busload of workers, all of whom were Afghans. The workers said that day they had been riding a minibus to a big building project in northern Tehran, as they had every day for the last several months. Security forces arrested them at Vali Asr Square for planning to give “armed assistance” to the demonstrators and sent them, the bus, and their picks and the shovels — the so-called 'arms' — to Evin. The workers were extremely afraid. When they talked to anybody, they kept insisting that they were just simple workers who had been going to their jobs and it had been only bad luck that they had been caught in traffic at the center of the clashes.”

The arrests were even more troublesome for the workers because most of them did not have residency permits. So the same courts that handled political cases sentenced them to be expelled from Iran. After a long and tedious process, they were transported to Iran’s eastern border and dumped in Afghanistan.

A night before he was expelled, another Afghan worker told Rahman that until then, he had been repatriated three times, and that each time, he had returned to Iran. He said that he planned to return this time as well so that he could continue working on a construction project that was paying him well.

Political incidents aside, according to Iranian government figures, there are approximately 5,000 Afghani prisoners in Iran, which makes up about two percent of the prison population. Most are kept at Evin Prison on wards 7 and 8, which house financial offenders.

Many Afghan inmates have secured jobs within the prison, providing services — cleaning rooms or bathrooms — either to the Jihad Ward, which houses wealthy prisoners, or to Ward 240. In exchange, the prisoners receive cigarettes, more allocated time for phone calls or visits, opportunities for furloughs, or small sums of money. Most Afghan prisoners never have visitors because they do not have family or relatives in Iran, and they often have no one to telephone within the country either. They rarely have properties or jobs to make it possible for them to post bail for a furlough. 

Evin Prison old-timers say that contrary to widespread perceptions, Afghan prisoners are for the most part polite and calm. They seldom talk or take part in protests, and are often working. 

The Iranian government claims that the main reason for the imprisonment — and sometimes the execution — of Afghans is drug trafficking. But this is misleading, as the stories of Nabi and Ferdows make clear. And there are many more anonymous, innocent Afghan victims of the turmoil that unfolded in 2009. Most of their stories are never told. 

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