Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz is one of the darkest and most hidden corners of Iran’s prison system. It was built in 1971 in an area that at the time was considered a suburb, but, as the population grew, it became absorbed into the belly of the city. People who pass it every day are bound to wonder what goes on inside its impregnable walls.
Adel Abad has a sordid history. Harrowing tales of the massacre of political prisoners in its slaughterhouse, down in its basement, are related from person to person. The prison, which was built under the Pahlavi monarchy for 1,500 prisoners, now holds 5,300 of them.
On the night of March 29, a riot broke out among inmates. IranWire talked to inmates who witnessed the events of that night.
He introduces himself using the alias Pakbaz. On the night of March 29, 10 minutes after the lights were turned out for the night, terrifying sounds startled him. A group of inmates was counting from one to three; each time they counted to three they hit the wall with their bodies in unison. Even the ground under Pakbaz’s feet 100 meters away shook. The doors to the wards were locked and Pakbaz could not get a close-up look at what he had identified as a riot. Other inmates gathered at windows facing on to the prison to watch.
Inmates from Wards 10 and 11 were shouting and hitting the walls. They were protesting against the constant violations of their rights, the arbitrary granting of furloughs, the humiliation, out of fear from coronavirus. They were also protesting against a person by the name of Mohammad Hashemi, the prison’s resident judge, who has exasperated the inmates. “Hashemi, show shame; let go of prisoners,” chanted the protesters. Hashemi, an agent of the Supreme Leader’s establishment, is the prison’s real ruler and has close relations with powerful security agencies.
According to Pakbaz, Hashemi is a young man who opposes the idea of giving the inmates any facilities or amenities, who has derailed the normal process of medical treatment and furloughs by running it in a whimsical manner, and nobody, not even prison officials, can stand up to him.
Adel Abad complex has two separate buildings, not very far apart from one another.: the detention center and the central prison. That night Pakbaz saw that the lights of the detention center were being turned on one by one.
Not the First Riot
Pakbaz says the riot on March 29 was not the first one in recent months. “The protests started when they crammed 300 young men who were arrested during the [November protests] into the quarantine ward. They were jammed into the ward in the most humiliating way. For three months they were kept in this space for temporary detainees without any amenities, so much so that they were lice-ridden all over because they had no water for washing.”
These detainees were eventually driven to protest. “Late in January, these November detainees, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, went on strike,” says Pakbaz. “The quarantine ward is built for temporary detention and has not been designed for long-term incarceration. It has only one phone booth and very few washstands and lavatories. In protest against these inhumane conditions, they broke the windows, threw away the dishes and destroyed the sanitary facilities. This, of course, cost the prison a lot but the riot was violently put down by the guards. A few days later, however, the detainees were [re-housed and] distributed throughout the regular wards of the prison.”
Pakbaz says that despite the rule that prisoners must be separated according to the type of their offenses, the young detainees were all sent to wards reserved for dangerous criminals, except one who was sent to the ward for prisoners held on politically-related charges. “They wanted to sidestep the challenge the inmates posed but, instead, these same young men changed the wards that they were sent to,” he says. “No one could have imagined that inmates of Adel Abad’s Wards 10 and 11 would start shouting, ‘Come, freedom!’, ‘Bread for the people!’ or ‘Fear us!’”
Prison Ward “Happiness”
Pakbaz has been incarcerated in Adel Abad Prison for seven years, but he had never witnessed inmates of these wards or of other wards housing ordinary prisoners — which have misleading names such as “Happiness,” “Endeavor,” “Green” and “Koran” — shout for freedom as political prisoners tend to do. “That night very few chants were about welfare demands,” he says. “The chant that was repeated was: ‘turn your eyes toward your motherland and your back toward the enemy.’ Half an hour after the rioting started, the prisoners in the detention center rose up, too.”
For five hours he heard the screams of inmates in other wards and of the prisoners in the detention center, who were being beaten by anti-riot guards.
According to Pakbaz, in the morning of the same day and before the riot, guards had welded shut the door to the Green Ward, not far from Ward 14 for political prisoners, from the outside. “They had welded it in a way so that it could be opened only from outside,” he says. “Perhaps they had predicted the riot from what had happened in other prisons. Nevertheless, the inmates broke their bunks into pieces to use them as weapons. In Ward 10, they blocked the door from inside with whatever they had to prevent the guards from entering by force.”
Despite precautions taken by the jailors, less than an hour after the riot started, prisoners in Ward 10 tore down part of the wall. “They tried to escape through the exercise yard when the shooting started,” he says. “The prison’s loudspeakers warned: ‘if you leave the building area for whatever reason we will stop you with bullets.’ The commander of the guards and the chief warden did not leave the loudspeakers, even for a moment.”
That night Yadollah Alirezanejad, the chief warden, tried to calm down the inmates using both encouragement and threats, but the more he threatened the higher the chants rose.
In an attempt to provide more detailed information, Pakbaz introduces me to a fellow prisoner by the name of Houshang G.
According to Houshang, the detention center building is not as sturdy as the central prison at Adel Abad and, as a result, some of its walls came down that night as the riot unfolded. He is absolutely sure that some inmates were shot around the detention center, although he does not know whether anybody had been killed; he says he heard screams as the shots were being fired. “Those who wanted to get into the yard were pushed back by shots fired from the guard tower or the roof,” says Houshang. “At the same time, officers and guards, whose job is to check the doors and the windows, were hitting them with batons and iron rods to make sure that they had not been cut beforehand. All these horrible noises made the prison an eerie place.”
Houshang says he saw flames coming out of the detention center: “They said that the inmates had set their blankets on fire. It was after this that a few prisoners from Ward 11 broke through and entered the hallway. To stop them, they [the guards] fired teargas. They had shut the electronic doors that lead to the clinic. So the inmates who had entered the hallway could only get near the doors leading to the clinic and to Ward Endeavor and had to turn back.”
The Jailors’ Pets
He says that at around 2am the prosecutor and a number of judiciary officials entered the prison compound. “Not only the anti-riot guards, but also inmates who were cooperating with the jailors, were moving around and did things to harass the prisoners. When needed, they even assisted the torturers and, when ordered, they searched the prisoners. There are a few individuals like this in every ward. When the teargas reached other wards and everybody’s throats started burning, these people would bring wet towels and water for the guards. But, at a certain moment, they shouted, jumped inside and locked the doors. When this happened we were certain that a number of rioting inmates had found their way into the central hallway.” The chief warden and the prosecutor arrived, but the riot continued. Anti-riot units were sent in, and when they made their way into Ward 10, it led to a fist fight between the two sides.
At this time the chief warden’s voice came onto the loudspeakers again in a desperate attempt to try to calm things down: “Do not raise your hand against the prisoners. Insulting the prisoners is insulting me. I advise you not to disrespect the prisoners.” But his exhortations were mixed with the sound of shots and shouts of “stop beating,” “you broke my hand,” or “I am bleeding. Let me be, please.” And, in the dark, the anti-riot guards used their flashlights to look over the prisoners who had been silenced by the shots.
The unrest stopped after 3am. The floors of Wards 10 and 11 were black with welding marks left from when guards had cut or locked the doors, and burnt plastic, broken bunks, halogen lamps and smashed CCTV cameras were strewn everywhere, making it look like a battlefield. The lights were turned back on for a few short minutes and one could hear the earsplitting coughs of inmates, suffering from the effects of teargas and pepper spray. The same night the authorities transferred inmates of Ward 10 — now no longer habitable — elsewhere and began clearing up and repairing what they could.
Ready to Die to Escape Prison
Both Houshang and Pakbaz point out that some prisoners wanted to get out of the situation no matter what — even if that meant death.
Pakbaz talks about inmates who set their beds and clothes, their only possessions, on fire. “This inmate was shouting, ‘Come and kill me. I am ready to die.’ And his voice carried over all the noise. The following day, when they took some of us to help the cleanup, we saw that nothing was left intact. They have nothing to live for and their lives are monotonous. For instance, there is this inmate who has been in Ward 10 for 25 years because he committed murder. Neither the family of the victim forgives him nor has he been sentenced. There has been no trial and no verdict. He is just left hanging until he dies. He was saying, ‘I must die to get out of here.’ They are willing to die. Maybe that is why the guards were unable to deal with them and the shooting lasted until 3am.”
Houshang believes that those who say the unrest at Adel Abad was confined to Wards 10 or 11 are attempting to claim that all the protesting prisoners were murderers and drug smugglers.
“The two wards where the inmates rioted are for prisoners who have committed violent crimes," said Kazem Mousavi, Director General of the Justice Department of Fars province in an an interview with the website Khabar Online on March 30. “During the unrest, the inmates in these two wards broke fences and CCTV cameras, but order was restored when prison guards, the police and the security forces intervened. There have been no reports that any prisoner, guard or policeman has been harmed or that anybody has escaped” [Persian link].
Mahabad, an inmate who is in prison because of his debts, says that the rumor that a couple of prisoners who had contracted coronavirus had been transferred out of the ward played a role in triggering the riot. “Now they are giving us supplies for washing and telephone [privileges] on Fridays, which was banned earlier. It’s allowed again, but the situation is suffocating,” he says. “Exercise yards are off-limits because of coronavirus and spending day and night in a closed environment without sunlight, without proper ventilation and without interaction and communication is really deadly. The moment that somebody catches a cold and starts coughing, our lives are filled with terror.”
14 Years without a Trial
Mahabad has been incarcerated in Ward 11 since he came to the prison. According to him, the ward resembles a garbage dump, and lice crawl all over the inmates. “You know why the clashes started in Wards 10 and 11?” he says. “Because they are kept in the worst inhumane conditions. The situation for medical treatment, hygiene and food inside Wards 10 and 11 is indescribable. Sometimes an inmate who is running a fever must wait for two weeks before he is examined. In our cell we had an inmate who had been in prison for 14 years but had not been granted a leave of absence even for an hour. Whenever he asked for a leave of absence, the chief warden told him, ‘you have no right to a furlough. Furlough is a favor. I can do you this favor if I want to — and not if I don’t want to.’ Inmates in these wards are only alive by luck.”
Now the situation has calmed down at Adel Abad. The inmates say that more than 20 of them were injured during the unrest, but they deny the rumors that a thousand prisoners have escaped from the prison. They say that nobody escaped, though they tried. Perhaps the jailors have learned from riots in other prisons, and their welding work on prison doors, which started before the riot, prevented a breakout.