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V. Detention Centers and Ill-Treatment

This section describes the treatment of political detainees in Tehran’s Evin Prison as well as illegal detention centers staffed by various intelligence and security agencies.  It describes that aspect of detention that most traumatized political detainees with whom we spoke: total solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time.  This section also documents the connection between plainclothes security forces and illegal detention centers. 

Under international human rights law, Iran is obligated to ensure that all persons deprived of their liberty are treated with humanity and respect. 17 Moreover, no one may be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.18

Evin Prison

Evin Prison, located in the hills of northern Tehran, was built in 1971.19 It grew to international prominence when, during the late period of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s rule, thousands of political prisoners were held in horrifying conditions, tortured, executed there under the control of the shah’s secret police, SAVAK.20 After the 1979 revolution, the new government rounded up those associated with the monarchy and detained them in the facility, and in the years that followed those who had supported the revolution but were later seen as a threat to the new Islamic Republic were taken to Evin. Perhaps the darkest period in Evin’s history came in the late summer of 1988 when untold thousands of political prisoners were executed after cursory trials.21 

The compound, in an eerily beautiful location for a prison, has grown over the years to several buildings.  While formally under the control of the National Prisons Office, in the last several years different wards of the prison have  effectively been handed over to the judicial authority, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.22

While Evin is not the only prison in Tehran, almost all of the individuals whom we spoke with spent some part of their detention there. Many persons detained there in these first years of the crackdown interpreted the new interrogation methods introduced in late 2000 and 2001 as a reminder that Evin was a place to be feared.  The authorities seemed to understand that in early 2000 many intellectuals who went in and out of Evin shared the impression of one prisoner: “We were all in there together, and it was like a university.”23   

Political detainees in Evin report different experiences in prison than those charged with common crimes: interacting with different authorities, and being pulled out for interrogations much more frequently. The authorities use threats of torture, threats of indefinite imprisonment and torture of family members, deception and humiliation, multiple daily interrogations lasting up to five or six hours, denial of medical care, and denial of family visits.

Parallel Forces and Illegal Detention Centers

You need to understand that Prison 59 is not just a place, it is a concept.  One begins to think that there are underground prisons everywhere. And even for those of us who are free, we feel constantly as though we are walking on the screams of our colleagues.24

Iranians use the term “nahad-eh movazi” literally “parallel institutions” to refer to the various extralegal agents of state coercion that have grown in formality, organization, and capacity.  Iranian newspapers regularly use the term “parallel institutions” and “plainclothes ones” to refer to the networks of Basiji [militia], Ansar-e Hizbollah [partisans of the party of God], various intelligence services outside of the Ministry of Intelligence, and the secret prisons and interrogation centers at their disposal. 

The number of illegal detention centers not under the direct control of the National Prisons Office is unknown.  They are not officially registered as prisons, do not record the names of their prisoners, and information about their budgets, administration, and management is not known even by relevant government authorities.  There are reportedly many in and around Tehran, and they appear to be growing in number.

In early 2001, members of parliament learned that underground prisons were being used to hold many political detainees. Several members, led by MP Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoini, demanded to see these prisons for themselves.  The ensuing debates about the secret prisons led to some light being shed on their existence, and there was a moment of hope in which it appeared that some of the prisons would be shut down.  It did not last.  While there were some reports that illegal prisons were closed, specifically Towhid Prison, several former prisoners reported that they witnessed construction of other buildings while they were in custody. While it has not been possible to confirm this information, it appears that the authorities responded to the increased domestic and international attention on the secret prisons by transferring the monitoring, intimidation, and detention of political targets to alternate agencies.

For Iranians, the secret detention centers are inextricably linked with plainclothes security agents.  These forces have attacked reformist newspaper, violently lashed out against students and other protesters in the streets of major cities, and interrogated political prisoners in custody.  We spoke with one newspaper editor, a member of the first parliament after the revolution, who was attacked by these agents after he gave a speech with another MP.25 More recently in 2004, they have “kidnapped” student leaders, verbally threatened human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, and physically attacked a crowd in Hamedan gathered to hear a speech by a prominent student leader and a reformist politician.26

These militia groups have in recent years become more sophisticated, improving their organization, visibility, level of resources, planning, and coordination.  Human Rights Watch spoke with several reporters who had observed that during the protests of June and July 2003, plainclothes militia groups had set up checkpoints around the Tehran University in order to keep people from joining the protesters that had already gathered.27 In addition, several witnesses to these protests noted that plainclothes agents were communicating on walkie-talkies with one another.

In the period covered in this report - April 2000 to February 2004- plainclothes agents wrecked the offices of reformist newspapers, attacked preeminent intellectuals during public lectures,28 kidnapped student leaders29, beat protesters with batons, broken bottles, and wooden clubs during peaceful political gatherings,30 and delivered many individuals to detention centers and prisons. As these forces have grown, it has become more difficult to determine which arm of the government they are connected. For example, while the Basiji and Ansar-eh Hizbollah groups are well known quasi-official groups, it appears that the judiciary is also using plainclothes agents to silence those who criticize the government.

Some officials have openly threatened political activists with reprisals from pro-hardliner vigilantes.  The commander of the Basij forces at Amir Kabir University was quoted as saying, “From now on, we will confront them in a different manner; we will put those who disagree with our opinion or do something illegal back in their place.  These confrontations might be physical, and from now on, we will not recognize these matters as our responsibility.”31There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that these agents act with full state authority: there are many reports of Ansar-e Hizbollah men with arms.32 People saw checkpoints manned solely by plainclothes men with guns during the protests of June and July 2003.33

Perhaps the clearest link between the parallel forces and the government is seen in the secret detention centers. Every former prisoner interviewed by Human Rights Watch had spent some portion of his detention in an illegal prison, and all suffered similar mistreatment. More than anything else, every prisoner emphasized that his treatment in the illegal detention centers was far worse than in any section of Evin Prison. Transport of prisoners to these detention centers began with being told to put their heads down or being forcibly pushed down in the back of a car with a blindfold on, followed by at least forty-five minutes of circling around Tehran in order to confuse the prisoners’ directional bearings.  Family members recalled that this is the point at which they lost contact with the prisoner, hearing nothing more until or unless they had been moved to a formal prison.34  Every prisoner told Human Rights Watch that they had been kept in absolute solitary confinement in the illegal detention centers, Prison 59 and Prison 66, allowed to visit the bathroom and pray three times a day while blindfolded, and faced the harshest interrogations of his imprisonment. All said that the staff they were allowed to see did not wear uniforms, and were members of the lebas shakhsi-ha, or“the plainclothes ones.”

Prison 59

Some forty members of the Melli-Mazhabi, (religious-nationalist alliance) a loosely affiliated group of writers, journalists, and political activists, were arrested in March 2001 and sentenced to prison. Many were held in one of the more notorious illegal prisons, Prison 59, also referred to as Eshraat-abad.35  Human Rights Watch spoke with several writers, journalists, and student activists who had been taken to Prison 59.  It appears that those prisoners who do not confess after being subjected to solitary confinement in Evin are taken to Prison 59 in order to cut them off from information and break them psychologically.36 Several prisoners, returned to Evin after spending some time in Prison 59, were threatened with being sent back there if they did not cooperate. 

Prison 59 is controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and is located in the IRGC compound in Vali-e-Asr, Tehran. The prison itself appears to be run by the Intelligence Services of the Revolutionary Guard (Hefazat-e Etelaat-e Sepah Pasdaran).  It is composed of a series of solitary cells and interrogation rooms, and two larger holding areas equipped with video cameras.  Prisoners are provided with a rug, a towel, and a bowl upon entering, along with unmarked pajamas.  Each was told, “Here, there is absolute silence.” They were told that before their cell door opened, they should don a blindfold until the guard allowed them to exit. They have no contact with their families, their attorneys, or any other prisoners. They do not have access to medical care while in Prison 59, and many reported falling ill due to severe temperatures.

Despite some reports that Prison 59 had been closed, Human Rights Watch interviewed individuals who had been held there as recently as July 2003.  They reported that in the sudden intake of thousands of prisoners during the June and July protests many were taken to Prison 59’s holding areas in large groups.37 One of these detainees was able to see much of Prison 59 without a blindfold and told Human Rights Watch, “I cannot imagine spending one night in those solitary cells without losing my mind.”38

Edareh Amaken

More recently, politically active individuals are summoned to report to a detention center controlled by Edareh Amaken Umumi [Department of Public Places] for the day, and then released. Amaken, a division of the Law Enforcement Forces tasked with monitoring “morality crimes” such as physical contact between men and women and playing music, apparently provides facilities for the parallel intelligence services to carry out interrogations at its offices in Tehran.39 Its building has a series of basement cells that have been used for political interrogations and in order to intimidate activists and writers.

The Amaken interrogations have become well known among Iran’s students and the journalistic community, and they seem to be intended to spread uncertainty and fear among students and others.  Individuals often return home from a day of interrogations without being taken into long-term detention.  Some are asked to provide written confessions, others are threatened and told that they will be arrested in the future if they do not cooperate, or if they do not cease to engage in political activity.  Others are told that cases are being created against them. Individuals are reportedly taken to an office where they are interrogated about a particular article, website, or international telephone call, suggesting that the intelligence agents are developing a file against them.  Individuals are often spoken to harshly, threatened with imprisonment, and then let go.40 One individual told Human Rights Watch said, “It is not worth it anymore, they can summon you whenever they like.”41

Parallel security forces such as the Ansar-e Hizbollah and Basij shadow intelligence services such as Hefazat-e Etelaat-e Sepah of the IRGC and Hefazat-e Etelaat-e Ghovey-e Ghazai-e of the judicial authority, and the secret detention centers they control, are sanctioned by forces within the government. The illegal prisons, which are outside the oversight of the National Prisons Office, allow political prisoners to be abused, intimidated, and tortured with impunity.  The government has failed in its obligation to protect citizens from ill-treatment of this sort, to close down the illegal detention and interrogation centers, and bring the individuals responsible for these acts to justice.

“White Torture”: The Use of Solitary Confinement

In Iran, intellectuals, writers, activists and detainees themselves use the term “white torture” 42 to refer to the use of incommunicado solitary confinement (enferadi).  The conditions of solitary confinement used against political prisoners are designed to break the resolve of detainees such that they capitulate and agree to be videotaped, sign confessions, and give information regarding their political affiliations and associates.  Prisoners are held in solitary cell blocks, many in secret detention centers, often underground, with twenty-four-hour artificial light. They are denied communication with other prisoners and access to attorneys, family members, and medical health professionals. 

Under international law, prolonged solitary confinement may rise to the level of torture.  The individuals who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch emphasized that their time in absolute solitary was far worse than any physical or verbal abuse they experienced.  They spoke of fear of losing their minds, of worrying that another day without any human contact would break their will.

Former prisoners emphasized that the increasing use of solitary confinement against those who criticize the government sends a message to others who might consider engaging in political expression: it is not worth it.  As many who have been detained have said, “I went in as one person and came out another person.”43 Their experiences in solitary have had a reverberating impact on the student and activist communities. By targeting the leadership of the student activist community and the most influential writers and newspaper editors, the government was able to chill expression among the larger public. 

One writer described the effects of solitary confinement in Evin’s Section 240:

Since I left Evin, I have not been able to sleep without sleeping pills. It is terrible. The loneliness never leaves you, long after you are “free.”  Every door that is closed on you, it affects you.  This is why we call it “white torture.” They get what they want without having to hit you.  They know enough about you to control the information that you get: they can make you believe that the president has resigned, that they have your wife, that someone you trust has told them lies about you. You begin to break. And once you break, they have control.  And then you begin to confess.44

The Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners state: “efforts addressed to the abolition of solitary confinement as a punishment, or to the restriction of its use, should be undertaken and encouraged.”45  The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention noted in its recent report on Iran that:

[F]or the first time since its establishment, [the Working Group] has been confronted with a strategy of widespread use of solitary confinement for its own sake and not for traditional disciplinary purposes, as the Group noted during its truncated visit to sector 209 of Evin prison.  This is not a matter of a few punishment cells, as exist in all prisons, but what is a “prison within a prison” fitted out for the systematic, large-scale abuse of solitary confinement, frequently for very long periods.

It appears to be an established fact that the use of this kind of detention has allowed the extraction of “confessions” followed by “public repentance” (on television); besides their degrading nature, such statements are manifestly inadmissible as evidence.46

The Working Group further stated, “such absolute solitary confinement, when it is of a long duration, can be likened to inhuman treatment within the meaning of the Convention Against Torture.”47

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights in an April 2003 resolution noted that “prolonged incommunicado detention may facilitate the perpetration of torture and can itself constitute a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or even torture.”48  In interpreting Article 7 of the ICCPR on torture and other mistreatment, the U.N. Human Rights Committee stated that “prolonged solitary confinement of the detained or imprisoned person may amount to acts prohibited by article 7.”49

The harm inflicted by solitary confinement is exacerbated by other aspects of the detention.  Cell conditions are especially poor: underground cells and cells filled with artificial light 24-hours a day appear designed to inflict maximum physical and psychological discomfort.   Incommunicado detention deprives detainees of access to family and counsel, allowing sole contact with interrogators and guards. This is psychologically damaging.  Furthermore, incommunicado confinement is considered the single highest risk factor for torture because of the absence of external monitoring of the interrogation process.50

The European Commission on Human Rights has stated that, “complete sensory isolation coupled with total social isolation, can destroy the personality and constitutes a form of treatment which cannot be justified by the requirements of security or any other reason.”51

Different and sometimes competing branches of the Iranian government control the various blocks of solitary cells in Evin Prison. Individuals we spoke with reported being held in Section 209 and Section 240, and several reported that solitary cells were being built in Section 325. These sections are named after the internal phone code of the block: “209” is the internal Evin telephone number for this section of the prison. 

It appears that Section 209 is under the control of the Ministry of Intelligence. Section 240 is under the control of the intelligence services of the judicial authority (Hefazat-eh Etelaat-eh Ghovey-eh Ghazai-e), and it appears that Section 325 is under the control of the Intelligence Services of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (Hefazat-eh Etelaat-eh Sepah Pasdaran).52  Some believe that Section 209, while nominally under the control of the Ministry of Intelligence, is also under the control of the Sepah agents.  Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm the fluctuations of power within the prison and the actual identities of those who control the solitary cells, due to the fact that prisoners are routinely blindfolded when moving within these structures. Former prisoners describe differences in conditions and treatment in different sections, as well as solely political and opinion-focused interrogations.  Rather than the differences, though, it is the similarities in the experiences of those who have been held in solitary confinement that is striking.

Section 209, the most notorious holding area for political prisoners in Iran, has been in use since before the 1979 revolution.53  Human Rights Watch interviewed one individual who had been in 209 in the 1980s who explained, “When they were building 240 and 325, they learned from their experiences in 209. In the newer cells, there is absolutely no way to communicate between cells, no way to hear sound.”54  In February 2003, when the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention went to the prison accompanied by officials from the office of President Khatami and with official permission to see the prison and speak with prisoners, they were brusquely escorted out of Section 209, with no explanation. Their government guides did not protest: it appears that regular officials, including guards and police officers, have little or no authority in the halls of solitary cells. 

Some prisoners were held in general wards before being taken to the solitary sections of Evin. Others were picked up by plainclothes men and taken directly to the solitary sections.  In Section 209, prisoners were walked down stairs into a basement, where there were at least four halls, approximately twelve cells per hall, and a separate row of solitary cells for female prisoners.  The cells measured about one meter by two meters, with a ceiling height of about four meters.  A light at the top of the cell (most prisoners estimated about 40 watts), is on twenty-four hours a day.  The cells in Section 209 have a toilet and a sink inside the cell.  The floor is made of what most prisoners described as chalk.  Prisoners are generally given a blanket, a pair of slippers, and a disposable cup.  The walls of the cell are all white.  Some prisoners were granted twenty minutes per twenty-four hour period in a caged outdoor area, but others never saw the open air except on their way to and from court. 

The prisoners, many of them held without charge or on charges that changed once they get to court, were not told why they had been taken to solitary confinement, how long they could expect to be there, or whether there was any way for them to attempt to secure their release or return to the general ward of the prison. In their interrogations, their freedom or their return to public wards was conditioned on signing a confession or videotaping a recantation or confession. 

Many prisoners were denied access to medical care while they were in Sections 209 and 240. Only one of the prisoners we spoke with had a family visit while he was in solitary confinement, and his wife left traumatized because of the severe weight loss her husband had experienced and his obviously altered demeanor.55 

One writer described the impact of solitary imprisonment:

In the first few hours, it is very hard. You have never been this close to walls in your life. You don’t want to sit, because it is chalk, and you are not used to sitting on chalk. You stand.  You pace. You start to get dizzy. After you get dizzy, you lean on a wall. After three or four hours, your legs get tired, and you sit. And then you scream and no one hears you.

And you feel like they are holding you, like they are physically holding on to you.  Your hair and nails grow faster. A lot of prisoners say that solitary is like being like “the dead in their coffins” because we had heard that the dead’s nails grow in their coffins.  Even if they had given me something to read, they had taken my glasses. Even if I had had my glasses, there wasn’t enough light.

There is no sound.  Once in a while, you would hear the call to prayer…After three days, it becomes so, so difficult. Different people break at different times.  We used to talk about when people would “break” [boridan].  Some people broke after a few days, some could last much, much longer.  It is absolute silence [sukuteh motlaq].  After three days, I just wanted any words. Even if it was swearing, even if it was a harsh interrogation.56

He would not have to wait long.  Interrogations of political prisoners took on an increasingly ideological and substantive angle: probing, insulting, and manipulating the prisoners’ writings, speeches, and views for hours.  Hours of interrogation at a time, while blindfolded, by alternating interrogators, were much more crushing when the prisoners were held in solitary.  The prisoner was cut off from information, from family and political events, leaving total control in the hands of guards, interrogators, and judges. 

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that this power over the prisoners’ reality, when combined with psychological and physical torture, denial of medical care, and threats to the prisoners’ family, left them with very little will to withstand coercive interrogations. They become increasingly willing to sign retractions of their views, confessions of wrongdoing, or even to participate in videotaped confessions.  Many told Human Rights Watch that the interrogations increased in intensity in solitary confinement.

Former prisoners told Human Rights Watch that as their time in solitary confinement increased, they began to suffer more physical and psychological symptoms as a result of the isolation, lack of fresh air and lack of movement. Most did not complain about lack of food, although many said that they lost significant amounts of weight due to their loss of appetite after a short time in solitary.  More than anything else, the prisoners said, it was the absolute silence that broke their spirits and threatened their mental well-being. They had no reading material, no writing implements, were told to remain quiet at all times, and only had contact with interrogators or guards passing through food.

Prisoners who had spent time in Evin’s different solitary blocks reported that Section 209 had slightly better conditions than Section 240, which is believed to be under the control of the intelligence services of the judicial authority.  Of the prisoners who had been in both, all reported that in section 240 the silence was more complete and the interactions with guards and interrogators were much more abusive. In Section 209, each cell block door has a small window at the top that, while filthy, allowed the prisoner some connection to the outside world.  The cells of Section 240, in the basement of a building on Evin’s grounds, have a small hole at the top of the door that is closed from the outside, allowing guards to look in on the prisoner but not allowing the prisoner to look out. These prisoners noted that they could not hear anything but the sound of their own voices when they were in 240, and that this was the most terrifying aspect of their time there. 

One journalist who spent twelve days in Section 209 of Evin in 1998 was never charged with a crime nor taken to a court hearing. He was again arrested in August 2000.  This time he was taken to Section 240.  There, he said, “They were much harsher, more aggressive, and more insulting.”  “I’ll be honest,” he told Human Rights Watch:

I was scared this time. In my interrogation, I said, “Ok, what do you want?” The interrogator said, “The behavior you have engaged in has been against the Leader. Tell us who you have spoken with on your trips abroad.” There were three interrogators in the room. They were verbally very aggressive.  For twenty days, I was not allowed outside, I had no phone privileges, nothing to read. They told me that they wanted me to go to court and confess that I had made a mistake.57

Another prisoner noted that “everyone has a different breaking point in solitary, but everyone will eventually break. They know this.” He said his own breaking point came on the thirtieth day in solitary confinement:

I suddenly started to react to the lack of air.  I would put my head at the window at the bottom of the door and try to get oxygen.58 I couldn’t sleep. I would talk to myself, but I couldn’t be too loud. I sensed that my condition was worsening. I fell down, hit my head on the door, and fell unconscious.59

The word most commonly used by prisoners to characterize the solitary cells was “coffin.” Most said that even after only a few days in the windowless, airless, soundless cells, they began to break down.60

The authorities in control of the solitary blocks needed the political prisoners to remain in a condition that allows interrogations to continue.  They were aware that mental and physical deterioration occurred more quickly in solitary.  One prisoner remembered that a friend, after three days in Section 209, began screaming, pounding his fists on the door. He recalled that the guards opened the door to the man’s cell for a few hours to allow him to regain his composure.61 

Several prisoners recalled being given a blank sheet of paper and being told to write “everything that they had done.”  Because they were accused of nothing other than expressing their political views, it was difficult for them to know what it was that they were to confess. Prisoners would write down as many recent aspects of their lives as they could recall, only to have the sheets of paper ripped apart and told to “write down the truth.” 

Massoud Behnoud recalled what several others also told Human Rights Watch, that if they were able to get away from their solitary cells even for a few hours, returning was even more difficult then when they had initially begun their time there:

After all this time, there were no words, no books, no toothpaste.  I would mark the days on the wall.  On the fifteenth day, they threw my clothes into my cell and said, “put on your clothes.” I remember that my belt wouldn’t hold up my pants.  My coat did not fit.  I thought, “they are going to set me free, and now, as a bonus I look fit too.  I had to fold down my pants like an old man who has just returned from the pilgrimage…I thought, as I put my clothes on, that I had handled solitary confinement in a gentlemanly manner.  They drove me out and they said, “you have a visit.” I saw sky. I saw trees.  I told the sky that I appreciated it now. Evin, it was a beautiful place. But then, I realized with a chill, that when they said “visit,” it meant I had to go back into that hole.62


Interrogations carried out while detainees are held in abusive detention conditions raise the risk of forced confessions, torture and threats of torture, and use of other coercive techniques.  The interrogations carried out in Evin prison as well as unauthorized detention centers demonstrate the very political nature of the crackdown: those targeted were detained because they acted as the main platforms for the reformist and student movements.  Testimony regarding the interrogations of political detainees demonstrated not only that these interrogations violated international standards,63 but also that the crackdown was led by those in the government who saw the reformist journalists and students as a class to be intimidated, silenced, and ultimately to be made into examples.  The interrogations also provided the authorities with an opportunity to learn more about the dissidents, and to use any information they were able to obtain to expedite their crackdown. Interrogations served as the principle means to fabricate criminal files and charges, coerce confessions, and make threats against prisoners’ family, colleagues, or political associates.

Human Rights Watch interviews suggest a pattern in the interrogation of political prisoners after 2000: moving from a focus on the personal life of the detainee to their political views and opinions.  Some were held without ever being charged with a crime, or ever going to trial. Others were held in extended pre-trial detention in solitary confinement. Those who were charged were usually accused of opinion or belief related crimes such as “insulting the Leader.” The interrogations often began with repeated questioning regarding unrelated matters.  As one writer recalled, “They started out by asking me all kinds of bizarre questions that had nothing to do with my work: ‘Why did you separate from your first wife?’ ‘Why do you drink?’ About my relations with women.”64 It was only later that they turned to his beliefs and political views. These early interrogations could go on for hours, carried out by rank-and-file interrogators who used insulting language and threatened physical torture if they did not “cooperate.

Another prisoner recalled:

They had held me without telling me why I was there for twenty-four hours.  In my first interrogation, they kept asking me why I had had a relationship with a martyr’s wife.  I kept telling them that I had no idea what they were talking about. It was as though they didn’t hear me: they would just keep asking the same question over and over and over again. The interrogator said, “Don’t say ‘didn’t,’ ‘wouldn’t,’ just sign this document, and we will let you go.”65

Prisoners reported feeling frustrated by the ridiculousness of these early interrogations, as well as the humiliation and embarrassment of being insulted about the conduct of their private lives.  One prisoner reported once saying to his interrogator, “At least ask me a few questions that have something to do with why I am here.”66  During almost every interrogation, prisoners reported having a sheet of paper (usually on judicial authority letterhead) placed in front of them, where they were asked to “confess what they had done wrong.”

After the initial rounds of softening-up interrogations focusing on moral or sexual “crimes,” detainees were questioned by more “intellectual” interrogators who focused on their writings and political beliefs.  Interrogators often used threats against prisoners’ families or the promise of release in order to obtain confessions or disavowal of their stated political opinions on video camera. One writer’s interrogation took on an Orwellian tone:

The interrogations started again. They would take me into the same room, but there were new interrogators who had clearly looked at everything [I had published].  As interrogations became more sophisticated, they focused more on my politics.  Every few days, they would ask about my meetings with specific people, such as Dr. Soroush and Dr. Yazdi.67  It was the month of Ramadan, I remember, so there was no food at all during the day. It was becoming harder to bear.  One day when we were going into interrogation, they told me to put on my normal clothes.  A new man came into my interrogation room and he said, “we want to make a film.” I said, “Oh, like Kianuri’s confession.”68 I could tell that Mortazavi and several others were behind the door. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear his voice, and his Yazdi accent.69  He would pass notes to the man who was interrogating me.

One would say, “Come on, let him go today.” The other would say, “Let’s wait and hear what he says, that is why I am here.”  Another would say, “We really should let him go, his family is very worried about him.”  Then they started asking questions in front of the camera.

Before they began recording, the interrogator said: “Say the reformist papers are controlled by the west and other powers.” 

I said: “I am just a writer.”…

Him: “Mr. S [a fellow reformist writer] has told us what you did. So, say what we tell you on the video.”

Me: “I refuse.”

Him: “We have a tape of you saying that you got involved in [pro-reformist] newspapers through secrets and secret payments.”

Me: “This is not true.”

Him: “We have the video.”

Me: “Show me.”

Him: “That would take months. We want to let you go. If you want to be free, just do what we say on the tape. Don’t you respect the law?”

Me: “Yes.”

Him: “They law says you have to respect Mr. Khamenei. And Mr. Khamenei said in a speech that these newspapers [reformist papers] are the platform of the enemy. Don’t you agree?”70

Many prisoners reported that they had been asked about their relationships with other reformist intellectuals or writers. They did not have access to news from outside. At most they had access to the state controlled Kayhan or the anti-reform Jomhuri-ye Eslami. Interrogators told prisoners that “[President] Khatami had left the country” or that “the reformists had given up.”  Massoud Behnoud recalled the authorities telling him that “Khamenei has ordered Khatami to leave the country.”71  Almost all the interrogators suggested that they were acting at the behest of the Leader. Another newspaper editor recalled:

They told me to write a letter to the Leader asking for pardon, telling him that I had made a mistake.  I refused to write such a letter, because this would suggest that I thought that their actions or their laws were legitimate, or that I thought there was anything to pardon me for. I had done nothing wrong and therefore, there was nothing to seek pardon for.

They wanted me to make a videotape saying that I had been wrong, that the newspapers had been wrong.72

For many, the interrogations focusing on their political beliefs and on their affiliations with other intellectuals and writers were the most difficult.  They felt as though they were being asked to disavow beliefs that they held and articulated legitimately. The intensity of the interrogations and the lack of any coherent judicial process or hope for redress led most eventually to admit that they had done something wrong.  In addition to threatening their families, or threatening to extend their stay in prison indefinitely, the authorities also reportedly detained people who had been taken “hostage” [gerogan] for their outspoken relatives.73  In 2001, prisoners in Evin believed that Khalil Rostamkhani, a well known writer and translator had been taken in so that he would force his wife, another reformist writer, to return to Iran and deliver herself to authorities. Many were unwilling to pay this price and, as their time in prison continued, began to lose hope that resistance would do anything but lengthen the duration of their suffering.

For student activists, particularly those who were taken in after few reformist papers remained and when leading intellectuals had either been silenced or run out of the country, the interrogations focused on obtaining information about dissidents’ remaining outlet for information: external media and NGOs. One, who had been picked up during the raids on July 8, 2003,74 recalled five-hour long interrogation sessions, blindfolded, that relentlessly focused on a particular set of questions:

Whether we had had contact with Radio Farda.75 Whether we had been in touch with the satellite stations in Los Angeles, whether we had contacts in the West that we were giving information to, whether we had an internet connection at home, whether we were shah-lovers.76

Another student activist was asked similar questions about his connections to the outside world, and especially whether he was providing information to anyone outside the country:

Every day, three times a day, they would take me to the interrogation room.  Often, because I had a blindfold on, I would fall. I would be told to sit on a chair, look forward, and be smart.  They would say, ‘Who are you talking to? Who are you working with? Why did you insult Mr. Khamenei? It seemed like they would pick a question that they liked, and they would ask it over and over and over again.  Every time, I would give the same answer, and every time, they would ask the same question again. They would hit me hard on the side of the head and say, ‘Not like that.’

They would say, the people you are talking to in America are telling on you…it is much better if you tell us the truth. You have given many interviews to foreign radio stations.77

[17] ICCPR, art. 10.

[18] ICCPR, art. 7.

[19] Ervand Abrahimian, Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 105.

[20] Prison memoirs have become an increasingly popular genre in Iran, and are a rich source of information for the changing (and constant) aspects of life behind bars in Evin.  For the treatment of political prisoners before the revolution, see Abrahimian, Tortured Confessions.

[21] See Amnesty International, “Mass Executions of Political Prisoners,” Newsletter, February 1989; Amnesty International, “Iran: Over 900 Executions Announced in Five Months,” 19 June 1989 (Noting that “the organization now has over 1,700…names but it remains impossible to estimate accurately the number of political executions which did in fact take place in the latter half of 1988…it has gathered reports of their massive number and arbitrary nature from a wide variety of sources.”); Ervand Abrahimian, Tortured Confessions,  p. 209.

[22] In Farsi, the Ministry is called Vezarat-e Etelaat va Amniat-e Keshvar. In press accounts, it is sometimes referred to as the Ministry of Intelligence or the Ministry of Information.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with former prisoner, London, December 2003.

[24] Human Rights Watch Interview with former prisoner, London, December 11, 2003. 

[25] ”MP Warns ‘Pressure Groups’ are Active Again,” Aftab-e Yazd (Tehran).  

[26] “Rejected Majlis Candidates Attacked by Hezbollah, One Taken to Hospital,” Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), January 22, 2004 (translated by BBC Monitoring Middle East, original text conferred by Human Rights Watch):

An IRNA correspondent reports from the hall that about 200  Hezbollah members entered the hall and began heckling speakers, Sa’id Razavi-Faqih and Shahmoradi, by chanting the slogans “the blood in our veins will be submitted as a gift to our Leader” and “death to hypocrites.” The hecklers than started banging their feet on the floor and rushed forward and demolished the speakers platform. 

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with international expert on Iranian current affairs, November 18, 2003.

[28] See Human Rights Watch, World Report 2000, Iran, “Two leading reformist thinkers, Abdol Karim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar, were prevented by hizbollahis armed with clubs and knives from attending a student convention  in the town at which they were due to give speeches.”

[29] Kasra Naji, “Facing External Pressure, Iranian Hardliners Crack Down,” CNN Online, July 29, 2003, (retrieved October 30, 2003).

[30] See, for example, BBC News, “Militia Attack Tehran Protesters,” June 14, 2003 (“Security forces and hardline supporters of Iran’s conservative leadership have clashed with large crowds in the capital Tehran who were protesting against clerical rule.  Tear gas, clubs, and iron bars were used to disperse the protesters.  Hardline vigilantes were also seen pulling people from cars and beating them.”).  On June 10, 2002, Two leading reformists, newspaper editor Latif Safari and MP Hossein Loqmanian were also attacked while giving a speech at a mosque in Kermanshah, discussing the frustrations and successes of reform efforts.   Hundreds of plainclothes agents raided the mosque, attacking audience members and chanting threatening slogans.  The local governor general noted that “despite all actions, we saw the official statement by an illegal, law-breaking, freedom-killing, and anti-religious group of the Ansar-e Hezbollah.” MP Loqmanian said, “When a deputy of the Majlis criticizes any official of the judiciary in the slightest, he is sent to prison. But members of these pressure groups assault the citizens in public thoroughfares and even enter the people’s houses by force. Nevertheless they get away with it without the slightest response by the judiciary.” See “MP Warns ‘Pressure Groups’ are Active Again,” Aftab-e Yazd (Tehran), June 12, 2002 (translated by BBC Monitoring Middle East); Mardom Salari (Tehran), June 23, 2002 (translated by BBC Monitoring Middle East).

[31] “Commander of Basij,” Amir Kabir University News (AKU News), November 12, 2003.

[32] Civilians are not permitted to carry arms in Iran.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with an expert on Iranian current affairs, November 23, 2003.  The Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression recently confirmed this characterization, noting  in his report that: 

The Special Rapporteur was informed that, during both the 1999 and the 2003 events, students demonstrating peacefully were reportedly attacked by members of the Basij (a paramilitary group under the authority of the Revolutionary Guards, which is represented in each

university through a Students Basij Organization) and of the Ansar Hezbollah (a group dependent on the authority of the Office of the Leader) and many were arrested.

Report Submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right of freedom of opinion and expression, Ambeyi Ligabo, E/CN.4/2004/62/Add.2, January 12, 2004. 

[34] This was also the case with the religious nationalist alliance prisoners, many of whom were detained in Prison 59.  The wife of one of the most prominent detainees states, “Eshkevari had phone privileges at Tehran’s Evin Prison.. Suddenly, he told her that he was to be moved to Prison 59, a facility apparently run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.  She has not heard from him since.” Cameron Barr, “In Iran, Repression Hits Home,” Christian Science Monitor, June 20, 2001. 

[35] See Barr, “In Iran, Repression Hits Home,” Christian Science Monitor; See also “Centralization of Penal System to Resolve Shortcomings,” RFE/RL, November 2002. 

[36]   One journalist notes that as letters smuggled out of prison and prisoners’ accounts of detention became too embarrassing for the authorities, many were moved to Prison 59.  “The most prominent of the political prisoners… were transferred to Prison 59, a notorious jail run by the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran’s Eshrat Abad [sic] garrison, where nothing gets in or out.  Afshari, on state television, and Sahabi, in the form of a letter, have since made ‘confessions’ from Prison 59.”  Guy Dinmore, “Words of hope in ‘Hotel,” Financial Times, August 25, 2001.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with Ali K., New York, September 29, 2003.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with Ali K., New York, September 29, 2003.

[39] “Iran Report,” Radio Free Europe,October 28, 2002. 

[40] One journalist who had been interrogated there stated that “the men who interrogated him were not in uniforms and had nothing to do with the security forces. [He said]They insulted him and also asked him about Siamak Purzand [sic], a journalist who was jailed in January.  [He] also was questions about his interviews with foreign radio stations.” Radio Free Europe, “Iran Report,” February 18, 2002. 

[41] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with former student journalist, Toronto, Canada, November 28, 2003. 

[42] The origin of this term is unclear. Some use it because many of the solitary cells in Iran are freshly painted white so that the prisoners cannot leave messages for one another or write on the walls. Others believe the term refers to a technique that is as effective as physical torture but leaves no physical evidence.   

[43] Dan De Luce, “Kidnapped, Jailed, Beaten,” The Observer, April 4, 2004. 

[44] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ebrahim Nabavi, January 8, 2004.

[45] U.N. Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, G.A. res. 45/111, annex, 45 U.N. GAOR Supp.

(No. 49A) at 200, U.N. Doc. A/45/49 (1990), principle 7.

[46] Report of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran,E/CN.4/2004/3/Add.2, para 55, p. 15. This prohibition is also enshrined in Iranian law. Article 38 of the Constitution states: “All forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information are forbidden.  Compulsion of individuals to testify, confess, or take an oath is not permissible; and any testimony, confession, or oath obtained under duress is devoid of value and credence.  Violation of this article is liable to punishment in accordance with the law. 

[47] Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, E/CN.4/2004/3/Add.2, para 55, p. 16. 

[48] U.N. Commission on Human Rights resolution 2003/32, Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, April 23, 2003, E/CN.4/2003/L.11/Add.4, para. 14.

[49] U.N. Human Rights Committee, General Comment 20, Article 7, Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1 at 30 (1994), para. 6.  Article 7 of the ICCPR states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

[50] See Camille Giffard, The Torture Reporting Handbook (Human Rights Centre, Univ. of Essex 2000), p. 17.

[51] European Commission on Human Rights, Kröcher and Möller v. Switzerland, Application No. 8463/78 (1983); See also Nigel Rodley, The Treatment of Prisoners Under International Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 294-297 (citing the view of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture that ‘solitary confinement can, in certain circumstances, amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.’)

[52] There has also been reference to the Judicial Organization of the Armed Forces, which is linked to the  Intelligence Services. Meant to solely have jurisdiction over on military justice issues, this office seems to also be involved in interrogation and detention of political prisoners.

[53] Prison memoirs from the late 1980s also make frequent reference to the solitary cells of Section 209.  See, for example, Monireh Baradaran, Erwachen aus dem Alptraum (Zurich: Unionsverlag 1998); Nasser Mohajer, Ketab-e Zendan (Berkeley: Noghteh Books, 2001).

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with Iranian prisons expert, A.M., Paris, December 17, 2003.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with wife of political prisoner, London, December 2003. 

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

[57] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Ebrahim Nabavi, Belgium, January 8, 2004.

[58] The solitary cells in Section 209 have small openings at the bottom of the door .

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

[60] The tall cells of Section 209 do have small windows at the top of the cell, but prisoners said that little light passes through the window and they were unable to see the outside. 

[61] Human Rights Watch interview, Paris, December 17, 2003.

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

[63] In addition to prohibitions on torture and ill-treatment in detention, international standards also forbid officials from “take[ing] undue advantage of the situation of a detained or imprisoned person for the purpose of compelling him to confess, to incriminate himself otherwise or to testify against any other person.”  See United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention of Imprisonment, G.A. res. 43/173, annex, 43 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 298, U.N. Doc. A/43/49 (1988).  

[64] Human Rights Watch telephone interview  with Ebrahim Nabavi, January 8, 2004. 

[65] Human Rights Watch interview with Farhad T., London, December 21, 2003.  Shaheed, or martyr, is the term generally used in Iran to refer to those who were killed during the Iran-Iraq war.

[66] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ebrahim Nabavi, January 8, 2004. 

[67] Intellectuals well known for questioning concepts central to the Vilayat-e Faqih, or absolute rule of the Jurist.

[68] The broadcasted confessions of Nuraldin Kianuri, one of the foremost figures in the Iranian Tudeh Party, are well-known among the Iranian public. See Abrahimian, Tortured Confessions, pp. 179-187.  

[69] Mr. Mortazavi is originally from the Yazd region of Iran, and blindfolded prisoners said they recognized him from his regional accented Farsi.

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

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

[72] Human Rights Watch interview with Siamak S., London, December 9, 2003.

[73] There have been other reports of family members’ of prisoners being taken as hostages in order to obtain custody of their relatives, or family members being taken into custody when they are seen as being overly vocal. This seems to have been the case in the reported arrest of Firuzeh Saber, sister of imprisoned journalist Hoda Saber. See, “Political prisoners relatives protest,” IRNA, July 26, 2001. 

[74] The Persian date marking the anniversary of the 1999 Tehran University protests, which many see as the beginning date of the modern resistance to some aspects of the Iranian political system.  This date has seen increasing tension on the streets of Tehran and other cities since that year, when at least one student was killed at the hands of plainclothes forces.

[75] Radio Farda is a branch of Voice of America targeted specifically at Iranian young people. It has an increasing listenership within the country, and is a popular source of information for many. 

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with A.K., New York City, September 29, 2003. 

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

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