May 04, 2004, 8:26 a.m.
By Nir Boms & Erick Stakelbeck
“I never said that we have no political prisoners. We have them, and that is incontestable. They have been jailed for what they believe in.”
With this admission, made during an April 27 event marking Iran’s “National Youth Day,” Iranian President Mohammed Khatami merely acknowledged what the rest of the world has known for the past 25 years: The Islamic Republic is a graveyard for political dissidents.
Of course, that was supposed to change with Khatami’s ascension to the presidency in 1997, as Iran’s young people embraced him as a visionary who could break the iron grip wielded by fundamentalist mullahs over every aspect of Iranian society. Sadly, though, the opposite has occurred, as beheadings, floggings, and stonings have continued and the imprisonment and torture of Iran’s democratic activists has grown even more frequent during Khatami’s seven-year reign.
The latest indicator of just how ineffectual Khatami’s tenure has been to the cause of democratic change came on April 28, as Iran’s hard-line judiciary, in a transparent move designed to pacify critics of the country’s abysmal human-rights record, ordered a ban on the use of torture “to extract confession.” This practice – the mullahs’ preferred weapon of choice in dealing with dissenters – had already been outlawed in the 1979 Iranian constitution. The supposed ban, however, apparently did not apply for Zahra Kazemi.
In June 2003, Kazemi, an Iranian-born Canadian photographer, was arrested in front of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison while taking pictures of the families of political prisoners. Branded a spy by the Iranian government, Kazemi was detained at Evin and reportedly brutalized. According to Iranian sources, several days after Kazemi’s arrest, she began bleeding from her mouth and nose and was sent to a nearby hospital.
Prison guards who accompanied Kazemi to the hospital allegedly prevented medical staff from treating her properly or carrying out brain scans ordered by doctors. Kazemi, just 54 years old, subsequently died of a massive brain hemorrhage. Iranian authorities maintain that Kazemi died of a stroke while under interrogation, and have supposedly launched a full-scale investigation into her death.
However, given that Kazemi was interrogated by both the Tehran prosecutor’s office and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, it’s highly unlikely that the investigation will progress beyond a few empty public proclamations by the Iranian government.
An incident similar to the one that apparently claimed Kazemi’s life occurred last summer, when Iran’s morality police broke up a party being held in the Tehran apartment of 35-year-old Moshen Mofidi. Two of Mofidi’s sisters attended the party in the presence of several unmarried men, a situation forbidden by Islamic law.
Mofidi was jailed and sentenced to 80 lashes for the crimes of corrupting his sisters, owning an illegal satellite dish, and possessing medicines that contained alcohol. Mofidi’s sisters were also taken into custody and claim to have been beaten so severely during their imprisonment that several of their teeth were broken.
Mofidi, who had been suffering from severe lung and sinus infections at the time of his flogging, died a few days after being released from prison. Iranian officials refused to send his body to Canada, where several of his family members live.
While Mofidi’s case drew the attention of human-rights organizations worldwide, the most publicized incidence of Iranian barbarity was carried out with the help of another torture-friendly Middle Eastern dictatorship: Syria. In April 2003, Jamil Bassam and Abrahim Khodabandeh, two Iranian political refugees and democracy activists who had lived in Britain for over 30 years, were visiting family in Syria when they were arrested at their Damascus hotel.
After two months of solitary confinement in a Syrian prison, the two men were flown – in violation of international law – to Tehran on a Syrian jet and into the waiting arms of Iranian authorities. Bassam and Khodabandeh are currently being held in Ward 102 of Evin Prison, where they are reportedly being tortured severely while awaiting trial on unspecified charges.
Reached by phone in England, Khodabandeh’s wife, Elaha, said recently that she had not spoken to her husband since July 2003. “I want the mullahs to allow a (politically) neutral person, someone from the Red Cross or British Parliament, to visit my husband in prison,” she says.
While that remains unlikely, two weeks ago, protests were held by Iranian activists in Washington, D.C., London, Stockholm, Oslo, Rome, Frankfurt, Berlin, and the Hague to condemn the two men’s handover by Syrian authorities and the lack of a response from the British government on the matter thus far.
Further demonstrations were held on April 25, when, in a rare show of civil disobedience, 300 people gathered in front of the United Nations offices in Tehran to demand the immediate release of all Iranian political prisoners. The protest, like any event critical of the mullahs, was conducted under the watchful eye of Iranian security forces.
Despite such repression, Iran’s pro-democracy activists have proven to be a perseverant and gutsy bunch, as evidenced by frequent reports of anti-government protests – most often led by university students – that have raged in the streets of major Iranian cities over the past several years.
But without more support from the West, achieving any real change will likely prove difficult for Iran’s reformers. The U.S. regularly condemns Iran’s human-rights record but has done little to encourage the country’s democracy movements. As for the European Union, it recently chose not to table a United Nations resolution censuring flagrant Iranian human-rights violations.
It’s no wonder the most likely place to find an Iranian reformer these days is in a Tehran prison.
– Nir Boms is a fellow at the Council for Democracy and Tolerance and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Erick Stakelbeck is senior writer for the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism research institute.