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VI. The Students

They have made the students more afraid, but they have also made us more bold.  They see that students who have confessed or recanted are interviewed on television, and it is obvious to us that they are trying to send a message directly into the universities.  We have seen so much pain that we are not scared anymore.  After they beat you enough times, your skin becomes thick. The difference between us and the older generation of political prisoners (who were also active during the revolution) is that they are at the end of their rope. We are just at the beginning of ours.  We can tolerate much more pain.78 

The current pressure for democratic reform in Iran changed dramatically after the student protests at Tehran University in 1999, protests that marked the beginning of the contemporary student movement. The protests began over the closure of the well known newspaper Salam. Black-clad thugs attacked the students, beating many and killing at least one student.  President Khatami called for an investigation and trial of those responsible, but no convictions were ever returned. Every year on the anniversary of the 1999 event, students have gathered at Tehran University and other major campuses throughout the country. The date has been a flashpoint for violence and tension, and as recently as July 2003 the authorities have tried to keep large crowds from gathering at the university campus in Tehran. 

Almost every individual we spoke with said that it was important to draw a distinction between the treatment of “insiders” [khodi] and “outsiders” [gheire khodi].  “Insiders” are those who have had some role within the Islamic Republic, but have adopted more critical views, arguing reform of the legal system, transparency of governmental decision-making, and greater power for the elected branches of government.  Generally, they do not call for wholesale reexamination of the Islamic Republic’s political foundations. “Outsiders” are those who have not been politically involved in the Islamic Republic, either because of their youth or because they have eschewed any affiliation with the government.  Some “outsiders” have argued that democratic progress can only come through fundamental transformations in the system. 

The “student movement” is a disparate group, without a coherent leadership or organizational structure.  Some argue for reform within the current structure of the government, and others say that more drastic steps must be taken to create a democratic system.  There have been several splits within student political groups, and fissures are likely to continue. The largest known student group, Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat (the Office for the Consolidation of Unity), is the central office of various university-based anjoman-e islami [Islamic Societies].79 Other groups of students affiliate themselves with particular intellectual leaders.

Student activists and journalists for university media have been treated by the judicial and penal system as “outsiders.” Unlike the generation of well known writers or journalists, the students cannot rely on their reputations or their connections with officials or their families for protection.   The students cannot rely on their status in society or their age, or their respect from some branches of the government to shield them from the worst treatment used to silence critics. In the cases that Human Rights Watch documented, student activists were physically tortured more often than their “insider” counterparts.80

Those formerly imprisoned students who spoke with Human Rights Watch had a markedly more abusive experience from other interviewees in their encounters with interrogators and guards. The sequence of their arrest and detention was often similar: arrested without charge; held incommunicado for long periods; held in solitary confinement in Evin or in illegal detention centers before finally being released. However, they were treated more brutally, and were often subjected to physical torture in order to obtain confessions or videotaped retractions.

Students were typically picked up by plainclothes men, taken to an illegal detention center where they were beaten, interrogated, and threatened for several days or weeks, and then released. There are often no prison records and no court documents, but the impact on the individuals and on the larger community of students was quick and far-reaching.  Former student detainee Farhad T. told Human Rights Watch that he was picked up several times and detained for short durations, only to be let go until his next involvement in political activities. 

He remembered one incident in late summer of 2000, when he was walking into the gates of Azad University in Tehran and was picked up by a group of plainclothes men:

They slammed my head down in the car, a white Peykan [a type of car], and we drove for one and a half hours around Tehran. I couldn’t see out, but they just kept driving around the city so I would lose my bearings.  At the noon call to prayer, I was somewhere, in a basement I think, and the sound of the call to prayer was so loud I think that it was in or near a mosque. 

My hands were bound behind me in a chair. I had a blindfold on, and they were both hitting me and kicking me.  I couldn’t tell where the hits were coming from, so I had no defense, no warning.  They were telling me that I hadn’t listened to their warnings.

For three days, I had bloody urine. I was yelling from pain, and I could tell that there was at least one other person in the same place, I could hear him.  They would swear at me during the interrogations, I could tell that they had to be IRGC, their demeanor and their movements seemed like soldiers. 

There was three hours of beating and yelling a day, and then I would go back to the solitary cell.  I was there for six days, and on the last night, they dropped me off at about 11 at night.81

Several months later, in August 2000, he was a speaker at the annual meeting of Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat in Khorramabad, when the meeting was raided by plainclothes men.82 

They took many of us into a large room, blindfolded, and they put us in chairs with our hands tied behind our backs. About half an hour later, I could hear people being beaten near me, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. The acoustics of the room made it sound like six or more.

They were insulting people as they hit them, calling them “anti-Islamic” [zeddeh Islam] and “criminal” [jenayat kar].  The sound kept getting closer, and I got myself ready to be beaten. He hit me three times, and I started to talk back at him. Thirty minutes later, they were still hitting people.

They took everyone to take fingerprints, and told us to sign a form saying “I won’t be active against security,” “I support the Leader,” “In the event that I am arrested, I will not protest whatever decision is made by the court.” I told them that I didn’t want to sign, and the man who was there said, “Shut up or I will tell them to hit you again.”83

Mohsen M., another student activist and a representative of Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdatfrom the Medical School the University of Hamedan, was repeatedly taken into detention by plainclothes officers from the Ministry of Intelligence.  In September 2000, he was taken into a solitary cell in an illegal detention center.  His treatment there suggests that the tactics of the authorities were similar in cities other than Tehran.   He described the solitary cell as measuring 1.5 by 2 meters, with a four meter high ceiling, and a light at the top of the ceiling that was on twenty-four hours a day.  He was interrogated three times a day, at irregular times of day and night.

He was beaten especially severely when he refused to sign a blanket confession. He remarked on the humiliation he experienced at the hands of his captors:84

You have to understand that I have never been hit before. No one has ever spoken with me in such a way as they did, and I was not equipped.  More than anything else, I was not prepared to deal with being insulted in that manner, in the way that they would interact with me.

They used their boots to kick me, and I could tell that they were using boots because sometimes I could hear the interrogator changing his shoes, and I could tell that he was putting heavier shoes on, because his walk would sound different after he had changed his shoes.

Sometimes, they would smash their boots down on the roof of my foot, and when I would hear the change of the shoes, I would prepare myself, I would steel myself, because this act causes a kind of pain that you feel all the way into your bones.85

Mohsen’s medical records confirmed injuries sustained as a result of beatings.86  He told Human Rights Watch that in every interrogation there would be a piece of paper on the table. At times he was told that there was a video camera in the room as well:

When they wanted you to write, they wouldn’t take the blindfold completely off, only to the point that you could see the paper and pen.  I remember them tearing up the paper so many times.  They would tear it up and say, “See, you don’t cooperate.”

Many times, if there were two interrogators, one would be nice while the other would be very insulting and use harsh language that I do not want to repeat.  During one of my interrogations, one of them said, “I am trying to help you, you are a doctor working for your country, I know that you want to cooperate.” He would say this, and the other one would hit me on the side of the head. The nicer one would plead with the other one: “Come on, I know the doctor will cooperate.” The nicer one would push the confession paper over to me and say, “Come on, just write it and it will be over, just write it.” 87

Throughout his twenty-five days in solitary confinement, without any visits from family or counsel, Mohsen M. continued to resist confession.  He maintained the exact same story: that he had done nothing to violate the law, that he was involved with a recognized student group, and that he would not confess to any crimes.  “One day,” he told Human Rights Watch:

They said in interrogation, “You have to sign this paper.” They had written something in what looked very much like my handwriting which said, “I have made a mistake. I have insulted the Leader. I am very sorry. I will read from Ayeh Tobeh [the verse on penitence from the Qur’an].  I said, “This makes no sense. I don’t even know what that verseis.  I will not sign.”

When physical torture did not produce the desired confession, the authorities turned to psychological abuse:

One of the guards who brought me food, who I had a much better relationship with because I had once given him some medical advice, came by my cell and told me that he had some bad news.  He told me that they had called my parents and told them that I was in detention and that I would have a trial and that they needed to bring bail money.  He said that my parents were rushing to get to me, and that they had had a terrible car accident. He told me that my father was dead, and that my mother was in very serious condition.

I was going crazy.  I cannot tell you what it was like for me those days after they told me this.  I felt like I had lost my mind with grief. In my next interrogation, the interrogator said, “If you had not done this, your father would not have died.  This is justice for what you did.” 

Dr. M. never found justice.  He did not realize that the guards had been lying to him about his parents’ death until he saw them in court. After a judgment sentencing him to fifty lashes (later carried out) and a large fine, he was released and later gave several international radio interviews criticizing his treatment at the hands of Iranian authorities.  Days later he was again abducted by plainclothes men and savagely beaten.88  An experienced mountain climber, Mohsen M. then fled to the mountains around Tehran for several weeks before escaping the country. 

Some former prisoners told Human Rights Watch that brutal treatment by government agents sometimes took place in the presence of high-level judges.  The claims are similar to those made by other outspoken individuals who are critical of the government. 

Ahmed Batebi, a university student who first came to international attention when he was pictured on the cover of the Economist magazine holding the bloodied shirt of a beaten student, was first sentenced to death for his involvement in the 1999 Tehran University protests. This sentence was later reduced to fifteen years imprisonment.  For many, he has become the living symbol of the student movement, and also of the torture and ill-treatment that so many have endured at the hands of the government. Batebi managed to smuggle out of prison a letter describing the conditions of the early part of his detention in 2000, which was then posted on many Persian language websites.  His letter states:

They made me exit cell number 417 of TOHID blindfolded.  Half an hour later my judgment started at Branch 6 of Revolutionary Court. I had not been told where we were going. I had assumed the interrogation and investigation processes would be continuing.

I, therefore, was astonished when they removed my blindfold. In fact, I did not understand what was happening until the moment I was brought to the room to be accused.   I had a fever, severe diarrhea and had lost consciousness due to all the pressures and sleep deprivation and, thus, I could not control my stability. I was unable to focus on what was happening, and these factors rendered me unable to defend myself.89

Human Rights Watch confirmed with other prisoners who were imprisoned at the same time that Batebi’s letter was sent from inside Evin Prison.  Further, former prisoners who were in Evin with Batebi in 2001 and 2002 confirmed that his mental stability has degraded considerably, and that his physical condition (poor hearing, diminished eyesight, missing teeth) confirms his claims.  A journalist who recently met with Batebi confirms these accounts:

The tough days in prison have shattered him. At the cafe, he pulled out of his pocket a fistful of medicine that he says he needs to calm his jittery nerves… He has lost teeth and has hearing problems and bad vision because of the beatings of his face.

He has bad lungs, for which he blames his cell's location in the basement next to the main sewage pipe. Most prisoners are sick because of lack of air and the harsh smell of the chemicals used to kill the smell, he said. One of his cellmates, Akbar Mohammadi, had lung surgery.90

Hossein T., a student protester, experienced similar mistreatment. He was kidnapped and severely beaten by members of Ansar-e Hizbollah and later released, only to be arrested on May 23, 2000, and taken to Evin prison. He was taken to Section 209 of the prison, and kept there in solitary confinement.  His interrogations match the treatment of other detainees in Section 209: several hours long, constant demands for confession, and threats of continued detention or threats of physical abuse if a confession is refused. In his case, these threats were carried out. 

In one of my interrogations, Alizadeh [then a judge] came into the room, and he said, “Take off your blindfold.”  There were three men in the room, and Alizadeh started to yell at me.  He said, “Tell the truth.” I said, “I have told the truth.”  One of the men hit me on the side of the head.  Alizadeh said, “I can order for you to be executed right now.  You say what I say. You tell the truth we tell you. We will blacken your future otherwise.” 

After that, every night, they would beat me while they interrogated me. Mostly kicking, and hitting on the side of the head, which the students don’t consider to be torture because it is so common.

Twice they took me to the courtyard in Evin, where the executions are carried out. 91  They tied my feet.  They took off my blindfold.  One man was saying: “Tell me why you lied. Tell me what you did.” They hung me from my feet, and they put a bag over my head.  For what I think was thirty minutes, they were kicking me and hitting me.  They hit my chin, and the skin broke. Blood began to fill the bag that was tied over my head.  Blood began to drip on the floor, and this is when they stopped.

They were putting anesthetic on my chin, and I asked for medication. They put me back in my cell. 

The second time they took me in there, they hung me from my hands. They used a baton to beat my torso. They broke my hand, and I fell unconscious. When I regained consciousness, they said, “If you say you lied, we will stop.” I could not speak. It is not because I am brave that I did not confess, it is because I couldn’t talk.92 

He was later taken to Towhid prison, an illegal detention center that is now believed to have been closed following pressure from members of parliament.  There the interrogations and the attempts to force him to confess and retract his public statements continued:

Interrogations would normally last four to five hours.  The interrogator would talk, kick, hit, and yell. If there was more than one interrogator, they would often take on different roles.  One of them would say, “He is a good boy, let me talk to him, we will be able to work something out.”  And the other would say, “No, he doesn’t want to tell the truth, he is a liar.”  The interrogations would begin late at night, and go into the early morning. 

They would ask one question over and over again.  The same question, again and again. I would say, “I know what the truth is.” And then I would tell my story again.  Always the same story, but never what they wanted to hear. Sometimes, they would ask me to write my side of the story. I would write it down, and then they would tear it up and tell me to write it again. 

There, they would also sometimes use cables against the bottom of my feet.  They treated us like animals there.  There was no contact with other human beings.93

He remarked on the difficulty that faces many who attempt to document the crackdown by the “parallel institutions” on the students:

How can you prove that you were in the hands of the judiciary’s intelligence services? How can you prove that you were in the hands of the IRGC?  You have no documentation. They can deny the entire thing, and the only thing you can say is that your life was taken away from you.94 

Hossein T. fled the country in the summer of 2003. 

On July 9, 2003, the anniversary of the 1999 University of Tehran protests, there were reports of plainclothes men staffing checkpoints near the university, as well as mass arrests of those near the Tehran University campus. One person arrested then spoke with Human Rights Watch.  His experiences confirm that the treatment of students continues to be harsher than that of other higher profile detainees.

After being picked up by plainclothes men, Ali K. was taken to a police detention center [kalantari], with at least fifty people who had been picked up that day: 

Plainclothes men were taking people into interrogation rooms, and you could hear banging against the wall, people being beaten.  It was very clear for those of us outside what was going on inside. They separated a group us that they thought were political.

We were put in a bus, and we were told to put our heads between our knees and not to look up.  We went to Eshrataabad [secret Prison 59].95  They were openly beating people there, beating them on the bottoms of their feet with cables.

I was there for three days, with six interrogations.  They took pictures and videotape of me, where they told me to say in the camera that I had been charged with the crime of eghteshash [public disturbance], as well as being a threat to national security.96 

Some of his interrogations were carried out while he was blindfolded, and he was asked to tell his story over and over again. As with other detainees, he recalled telling the same story to his interrogators day after day, only to be told to “tell the truth.”

I always thought that if someone did something like that to me, if someone spoke to me in that way, I would be brave. But, as I found out… after you have seen them beat people around you, you actually turn out to be not brave at all. You tell them what they want to hear.97 

He was later taken to another illegal detention center, Edareh Amaken in Tehran.  There, he recalls a double interrogation, in which he was interrogated in the same cell as another man, “Habib,” who was being beaten:

He was in his early 20s. They told him to take off his shoes and his socks, and they beat him with cables on the bottom of his feet while they asked him and me questions.  He could not walk afterward, his feet were completely torn apart.  He said, “I will tell you whatever you want, I will confess to whatever you want.”  He was crying, and he had open wounds on his feet.

I am ashamed to say it, but I remember one day wishing that my parents were dead. Because then, maybe, I would have been more brave. I would not have worried about what they were thinking, and maybe I would have stood up to them more.98

After paying a heavy fine for the crime of “endangering national security,” Ali’s case was closed.99

[78] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Hossein T., location withheld, 8 December 2003.

[79] For more information on the group, see

[80] For example, the numbers provided by the judicial authority state that at least 4,000 individuals were arrested during the June and July protests of 2003, and while the government acknowledged release of some of these individuals, it is impossible to document the exact number of detainees, how many were released, or how many were affiliated with student political groups. International press journalists who were in Tehran documented plainclothes militia roving the streets on motorcycles, beating protesters with clubs and bats, and violently attacking groups of peaceful protesters. In August 2003, confessions of several students were televised, retracting their affiliation with political activity, and begging forgiveness for their wrongdoing. Several students, after being freed, stated that their confessions had been the result of ‘coercion.’ Leader Ayatollah Khamenei threatened the students with a reaction they remembered well, stating that “If the Iranian nation decides to deal with the rioters, it will do so in the way it dealt with it … in 1999.” See “Iran’s Khamenei Rips Pro-Reform Protests,” AP, June 12, 2003. Later, he freed a number of students, acknowledging that those “who had disassociated themselves from the trouble-makers and declared their loyalty to the Islamic Republic’s regime should benefit from Islamic clemency.”  “Iran’s supreme Leader orders ‘clemency’ for arrested students,” AFP, August 5, 2003.  See also “Gozaresh-e Na-arami hayeh se-shanbeh shab-e Tehran,” [the report of the disturbances of Tuesday night in Tehran] Yas-e Nau (Tehran), June 12, 2003; and “Lebas Shakhsi-ha ba motor seeklet dar Tehran,” [the Plainclothes ones with motorcycles in Tehran] Rooydad Online, June 30, 2003.

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with Farhad T., London, Dec. 21, 2003.

[82]  See “Iran Report,” RFE/RL News, September 11, 2000. 

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with Farhad T., London, Dec 21 2003.

[84]   A letter from Evin prison by student protester Ahmed Batebi in prison refers to similar treatment:

The soldiers bound my hands and secured them to plumbing pipes. They beat my head and abdominal area with soldiers' shoes. They insisted I sign a confession of the accusations made against me. Next, they threw me onto the floor, stood on my neck and cut off not only all my hair, but also parts of my scalp causing it to bleed.

They beat me so severely with their heavy shoes that I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, they started their actions again.  They gave me some A4 paper and ordered me to write and sign a "confession" of their accusations. Upon my protesting, they took me to another room, blindfolded me and secured my bound hands to the window bars.  Once again they insisted that I "confess." When I again protested, they beat me with a car-jacking cable. Under extreme duress, I was forced to write what they wanted. At that time, they tore up the A4 paper and said that I had to write the same thing on official paper with logo. But they never brought this paper.

Text of Ahmed Batebi’s letter from prison, March 23, 2000, on file with Human Rights Watch.

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

[86] On file with Human Rights Watch.

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

[88] Photographs of Dr. Mohsen M.’s injuries are on file with Human Rights Watch.

[89] Text of Ahmed Batebi’s letter from prison, March 23, 2000, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[90] Nazila Fathi, “After 2 Visits to the Hangman, More Horror for Iran Dissident” New York Times, December 14, 2003.

[91] This is same place where Batebi alleges that he was taken twice, noose tied around his neck, and told that he would be executed. 

[92] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Hossein T., location withheld, December 8, 2003.

[93] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Hossein T., location withheld, 8 December, 2003.

[94] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Hossein T., location withheld, 8 December, 2003.

[95] Several blocks or special sections of solitary cells (Prison 59, several blocks of Evin, and other secret detention centers in Tehran) were refashioned as holding cells for large groups of detainees during the June and July 2003 protests. According to numbers provided by the judicial authority, at least 4,000 individuals were arrested during the protests.  Due to the incredibly high numbers detained at one time, A. and other detainees viewed Prison 59 and other interrogation centers without blindfolds and were held in large groups.  In addition, Evin prison created an internal prosecution system, with prosecutors housed within the prison complex to deal with the large caseload of detainees.  These offices are reportedly now closed. See “Ten more detained Iranian students to be freed,” Reuters, August 11, 2003; Ali Akbar Dareini, “Iranian Student Protests Spark Clashes,” AP, June 11, 2003.

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

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

[98] Human Rights Watch interview with Ali K., New York, January 21, 2004. 

[99] The judgment in his case is on file with Human Rights Watch. 

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