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VI. Arbitrary Arrest and Detention

I came out of my apartment to go to work, and headed to my car. Suddenly, a group of plainclothes men with guns drove up. One of them had a walkie-talkie. They said, “If you work with us, we will help you. There is a report of drug use in your home.”  I said, “Do you have a search warrant?”  They showed me a piece of paper. “Who sent this?” I asked. “The judge from the Revolutionary Court.”…They searched my home for hours. I tell you, even if you had gone to your enemies’ home, and you had carte blanche, you would not have done what they did to my home that day.  They took all of my notes, my diaries, my family photographs, my personal videotapes, my speeches, everything. They told me that I had to go to the Intelligence office…When they took me to the office, they said, “Write down everything you have done.”  I would write something down, and they would tear it up. They would give me a new piece of paper and say, “Write down what you have done.” I would write, and they would tear it up. This happened eleven times.  Finally, they said, “You write what we tell you to write. You are very smart, you are very educated, and yet you have written the same thing eleven times even though we have torn it apart every time.”  I said, “Because it is the truth.”

They blindfolded on me and said, “You are arrested.”  They took me to a car, told me to lie down in the back seat, and we drove around for 45 minutes. One of the men in the car said, “People this smart will pay a price.”  Finally, we stopped, we went down some steps, and I remember that I fell because of the blindfold. They kept telling me to keep my head down. “Head down, head down, head down.”  I sat in a room in the basement until the first interrogations began…6

These were the first few hours of what would become months of detention, harassment, and intimidation for Moshen M., a young doctor and student activist who had been very vocal on his university campus.  He had recently been elected to a high position in a campus student group and had given a speech on student activism and written several articles critical of government hardliners in reformist newspapers.  He was targeted by the Ministry of Intelligence (Vezarat-e Etelaat) prior to its “clean-up” in 2001.7

Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits arbitrary arrests and detentions.  An arrest or detention is arbitrary when not carried out in accordance with the law, or if the law is itself arbitrary or so broadly worded as to allow arrest and detention even for the peaceful exercise of basic rights such as freedom of expression.8  In 2000 and 2001, many intellectuals, activists, and dissidents feared the Ministry of Intelligence, which was known for its links with plainclothes security agents ready to do the ministry’s bidding: pick up dissidents, search homes, and imprison activists and intellectuals in illegal detention centers—without judicial orders or on the basis of vaguely worded prohibitions. 

Since 2000 the use of plainclothes security agents to attack critics of the government has taken on a more formal character. They are increasingly armed, violent, and use sophisticated communication and transportation equipment.  Very few of the individuals interviewed have reported encounters with the regular Iranian police or Law Enforcement Forces [LEF].  We asked one writer if the uniformed police had worked with or attempted to stop the plainclothes agents who had attacked a group of students and others who had gathered to hear him speak, “The police?” he replied, “The police are afraid of these groups.”9  

These state sponsored groups have been implicated in the crimes of assault, theft, illegal seizure, and illegal detention.  The cumulative effect of their activities is to foster an environment where people are afraid to speak out, to write critically, and to engage in political activism.  Dr. M.’s experience is typical of those who were arrested or picked up in 2000, when the Ministry of Intelligence was firmly under the control of conservatives.

Farhad T.’s unlawful arrest in September 2000 followed a similar pattern:

Plainclothes men put me in a car, and they kept telling me to put my head down, to put my head between my legs.  They put a blindfold over my eyes, and we started to drive around a lot. We drove around for at least an hour.  Finally, we went down a set of stairs into a room, and I could hear someone approach me wearing boots.  They told me, “You have had a relationship with a martyr’s wife, that is why we have arrested you.”10

Farhad T. had been very active in developing youth support for President Khatami’s initiatives, had recently given a speech in early 2000 where he challenged Expediency Council Chairman (and former president) Hashemi Rafsanjani on government policies. This was his first of several encounters with plainclothes officers. He was never charged with any crime.

Those who spoke out were typically picked up by plainclothes agents.  Several established writers and intellectuals said that upon hearing that they were to be detained, decided to report to the courtroom themselves.  This did not prevent them from being subjected to similar treatment.  Massoud Behnoud, a highly respected journalist and writer, heard from a newspaper reporter on August 8, 2000 that his arrest would be announced in the dailies the following day:

I went to [then-judge Said] Mortazavi’s court myself, because I did not want them to come and get me.  They took me to the basement of Branch 1410 and there was a man there who took my bag. They put me in a car and didn’t tell me where we were going. It became obvious that we were going to my house…[T]hey brought a locksmith and opened the door to my home and began searching.  Whatever they were looking for, they didn’t find it, because I could tell that they were frustrated.  They kept calling Mortazavi on their mobile phones, telling him they didn’t have anything yet.  They went through … my personal files, my notes, my CD collection, my home videos, collections of my speeches and writings. 11

Behnoud was then driven to his second home, where the men carried out another five hours of aggressive searching through his private belongings.  Despite Behnoud’s repeated requests, the men never displayed a search warrant: 

At this point, it was probably about 11 o’clock at night, and they kept calling Mortazavi on their mobiles and checking in with him.  They started shoveling my garden, and I again asked them what they were looking for.  They started going through my wife’s private belongings. In my home, there were spare jugs of potable water that we kept in case the water was cut off. They started to pack up the jugs of water, and I didn’t understand what they were doing. They took out a sheet of paper, and began to create a false inventory: “white powder,” “illegal liquids.”12

One group [of agents] stayed at my home, and at about 2 a.m. that night, we drove up to the gates of Evin.  At the gates, they turned to me and said, “We have a message for you from Judge Mortazavi:  if you cooperate with the interrogators, we will not enter all these things that we have collected in your home as evidence.”13

With this, Behnoud, like many other political prisoners before him, and many more who would come after him over the next three years, entered Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

None of the journalists arrested and detained during the first wave of the crackdown in 2000-2001 were promptly charged with a crime.  Iran’s constitution requires that the authorities submit provisional charges to the competent judicial authorities within 24 hours.14  As described above, detainees were held, often incommunicado and in solitary confinement, for long periods without being charged, in violation of the constitution and Iran’s obligations under international human rights law.15  Several former prisoners told Human Rights Watch that all of “Mortazavi’s prisoners” were cut off from communications for several long stretches beginning in late 2001. While in prison in early 2000 and 2001, a group of ‘Mortazavi’s Prisoners’ provided secret interviews over prison telephones, passed letters to the press and international organizations through their families, and were able to pass messages to their families about the condition of other political prisoners or about their most recent encounters with their judges.16

These testimonies, which document the invasion of privacy, threats of false prosecutions, and intimidation of writers and journalists critical of the government are typical of the experiences of the other individuals that spoke with Human Rights Watch.

[6] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Mohsen M.,  Ankara, Turkey, December 8, 2003. 

[7] In late 1998 and early 1999, a number of Iran’s most prominent writers, journalists, and secular intellectuals were brutally murdered in a series of killings that came to be known in Iran as the “Serial Murders” [qatl-hayeh zanjiri].  In a watershed response, the government announced in January 1999 that a group of “rogue elements” within the Ministry of Intelligence were operating a death squad that was responsible for the killings.  President Khatami created a commission to investigate the ‘serial murders,’ and to charge all the Ministry of Intelligence staff involved.  At least seventeen staff were terminated, including Said Emami, the man charged with masterminding the group and later said to have committed suicide in prison. See, for example, “Iran OKs New Intelligence Minister,” Associated Press, February 24, 1999; Scott Peterson, “Iran’s Arrests of Intelligence Officers May be Watershed,” Christian Science Monitor, January 8, 1999.  A new minister was appointed, and the agency was brought more directly under the control of the President’s office. However, many dissidents told Human Rights Watch that many of the individuals who were removed from the Ministry moved to the intelligence services of the judicial authority and currently operate a parallel intelligence service targeting those who are politically active or vocal.

[8] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976.  Iran ratified the ICCPR in June 1975.  Article 9(1) states: “Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.  

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with Siamak S. (not his real name), December 20, 2003.

[10] Human Rights Watch interview with Farhad T. (not his real name), London, December 21, 2003.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview with Massoud Behnoud, London, December 20, 2003. 

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with Massoud Behnoud, London, December 20, 2003.

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Massoud Behnoud, London, December 20, 2003. 

[14] Article 32 of the Iranian Constitution states: No one may be arrested except by the order and in accordance with the procedure laid down by law.  In case of arrest, charges with the reasons for accusation must, without delay, be communicated and explained to the accused in writing, and a provisional dossier must be forwarded to the competent judicial authorities within a maximum of twenty-four hours so that the preliminaries to the trial can be completed as swiftly as possible.  The violation of this article will be liable to punishment in accordance with the law.   

[15] See ICCPR, article 9 (“anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him”).

[16] Examples include the number of critical letters and interviews by journalist and writer Akbar Ganji, the letter passed to the international press from Ahmed Batebi, and others.  Prison letters from Nasser Zarafshan, Akbar Ganji, and Ahmed Batebi are on file with Human Rights Watch.

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