Torture by Any Other Name

By Nir Boms | May 28, 2004

Earlier this month, Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi wasted no time denouncing the abuse of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison, accusing the United States of “systematically killing, torturing and raping Iraqis.” Echoing this statement, President Mohammad Khatami said, “The painful torture inflicted by the occupying forces on Iraqis is a great tragedy.” Top Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Janati went even further with his own invective saying “the pictures shown on the television showed the US criminal essence, which emanates from American savagery.”

While the leaders of Iran’s tyrannical regime have shamelessly jumped on the band wagon to take the moral high ground in the midst of the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco, they conveniently forget to mention the real “systematic” killing, torture, and rape practiced in their own prisons against Iranian dissidents during the twenty five years of their rule.

They neglected to mention the bloodbath they created during the infamous 1988 massacre of political prisoners at Evin prison-in which somewhere between 4,000 and 30,000 prisoners were methodically executed in several months. Sixteen years after this tragic slaughter, the families of those prisoners still have not located the graves of their love ones.

“The massacre continued until October 1988,” testified Hossein Mokhtar’s, a political prisoner who survived the Evin prison. “But they killed more than 90% of prisoners during the first 10 days. So many times we heard the heavy machine guns which were shooting to the victims in the ‘Shooting Execution hall’ of the prison. These were in addition to hanging on cranes and other hanging stands,” he said. French daily Le Monde wrote that many of the executed were only between 12- and 14-years-old when they were jailed for taking part in public demonstrations years before.

Last month, perhaps in light of the increasing concerns about Iran’s rampant human rights violations, particularly the torture death of Canadian photojournalists Zahra Kazemi last summer, the Judiciary Chief Mahmoud Shahroudi ordered a ban on the use of torture. The Iranian-borne Kazemi, 54, died from a brain hemorrhage caused by a blow to the head while in custody. She was arrested for taking photographs outside Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

Although Iran’s 1979 Constitution banned use of torture, it remained the mullahs’ preferred weapon of choice in dealing with dissenters. In fact Shahroudi’s decree was an explicit admission to widespread practice of torture in Iran. “All forms of torture aiming to obtain confessions are banned, and confessions obtained in this way have no legal or religious value,” said the text of his circular. But for the tyranny under the cloak of religion in Iran, torture is not an issue of action but one of definition.

Iran has not yet joined the Convention Against Torture, a convention that was introduced in 1975 and has been ratified by several countries, including Libya, China and Sudan. Article 1 of the convention bans most of the existing practices that fall under the “religious punishment” of Iran’s Sharia-based penal code. It is a system of laws that codifies lashes, amputations, eye-gouging, and stoning for charges ranging from robbery, drinking alcohol, and adultery to anti-government political activities. In the perverted lexicon of the mullahs, these “punishments” are not considered torture.

Inside prisons, on any given day, a religious judge could issue an order for “Tazir,” a religious term for physical punishment of the detainee that ranges from lashing the victim for hours to solitary confinement and electric shock. The ban does not apply to “Tazir”.

The use of torture has been widely debated in Iran as we learn from the published memories of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, an 82-year-old senior Iranian cleric and former designated successor to Khomeini. He revealed a number of shocking documents on the atrocities committed by the clerical regime along with some words of criticism.

Among the damming revelations was the text of a private letter, dated October 8, 1986, which Montazeri wrote to Khomeini, complaining about the ill treatment of prisoners. He wrote in part:

Do you know that crimes are being committed in the prisons of the Islamic Republic in the name of Islam the like of which was never seen in the Shah’s evil regime?

Do you know that a large number of prisoners have been killed under torture by their interrogators?

Do you know that in (city of) Mashad prison, some 25 girls had to have their ovaries or uterus removed as a result of what had been done to them…?

Do you know that in some prisons of the Islamic Republic young girls are being raped by force?

Do you know that as a result of unruly torture, many prisoners have become deaf or paralyzed or afflicted with chronic diseases? And there is no one to listen to their complaints?

Do you know that even once a prisoner is tried and receives a sentence, he is beaten and abused?

In the past quarter century, Iran’s leaders have used spin and double-talk in dealing with the international community. In negotiations over suspending their uranium enrichment program, the term “suspension” has a totally different meaning for the mullahs. The same goes for the definition of “torture” and “political prisoner”.

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 additional support from the West, achieving any real change will likely prove difficult for Iran’s democratic opposition. The U.S. regularly condemns Iran’s human-rights record. Perhaps it is about time that it will do more to encourage the country’s democracy movements as well.

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