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Story Publication logo July 31, 2009

Crude Iran Prisons House Protesters


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After a hotly contested presidential election that resulted in street riots and a disputed claim to...


From the days of the shah, Evin prison has had a fearsome reputation in Iran as the place where political prisoners are taken for rough interrogation and even execution.

But the facility in northern Tehran appears to have been eclipsed since the disputed June 12 presidential election by perhaps dozens of informal detention sites spread throughout the Iranian capital and suburbs.

As thousands of Iranians turned out again Thursday to remember victims of the crackdown, several recently released prisoners said they were kept inside industrial containers, storerooms and a former Revolutionary Guards arms factory. These places have been hastily converted into holding areas for many of those arrested in pro-democracy demonstrations.

Iranian officials have acknowledged that terrible abuses were committed in such places and that four Iranians have died in detention. Among them was the son of an aide to Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and a presidential candidate, who died in Kahrizak, a facility in southern Tehran.

Reacting to harsh criticism from within Iran and abroad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday ordered the closure of Kahrizak. The government also released 140 prisoners.

Tehran-based journalist Hanif Mazruaie, in an interview with the Persian service of the BBC, said detainees had told him of being held in a poorly ventilated container in Kahrizak alongside 40 others. Guards who brought detainees there on July 9, the 10th anniversary of 1999 student riots, "stripped them naked, struck them with pressured water and hit them violently with cables," Mr. Mazruaie told the BBC.

Another recent detainee, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, told The Washington Times that security forces "herded us blindfolded into what I thought was a stadium, where they beat us solidly for three days and threatened to execute us. They said to us that since we havent been registered officially, we dont exist so they could execute us."

Female prisoners emerging from Tehran's jails have complained that male guards beat them, pulled their hair and were in constant physical proximity with them despite Islamic laws that dictate prisoners be separated by sex and dealt with by same-sex guards.

Other prisoners have reported being held in police stations and being exposed to degrading practices such as being forced to lick toilet bowls, according to an unverified report published by a reformist news site called Mauj-e Sabz-e Azadi.

Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said Kahrizak had been used in the past for "moral re-education" of people found to have committed un-Islamic behavior. He said it was unclear where the three other detainees had died.

Mr. Ghaemi said a recently released detainee told him that he was taken to four different places in eight days and that the first two were "completely informal."

"By the time he got to Evin, he felt safe," Mr. Ghaemi said. He declined to name the detainee to protect him from further punishment.

Mr. Ghaemi said the regime was trying to replicate the crackdowns of the 1980s when the government executed numerous opposition supporters in Evin, but that it has been forced to back down and go on the defensive in the face of popular outrage.

"The day and age of the population is very different now," Mr. Ghaemi said, noting that details of mistreatment have spread around the world.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that she "deplored" the reported abuse of political prisoners in Iran. "We believe that it is imperative for [Iran] ... to release political prisoners and treat them appropriately and humanely," she said.

The crackdown also has caused outrage within the Iranian political establishment.

In a letter to the outgoing minister of intelligence, Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and presidential candidate, asked:

"Is what is happening today ... compatible with current Islamic laws in the country and democratic rules and culture? ... I ask you whether 'prison' has a specific definition in the Islamic Republic of Iran or whether people can be kept in mosques, schools and cellars of offices and ministries without the knowledge of their families and defense lawyers and even the judiciary for days."

The letter was printed in the reformist newspaper E'temad-e Melli on Sunday.

Mehdi Khalaji, a specialist on Iranian politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said "the main reason behind [Ayatollah] Khamenei's order to close Kahrizak was to prevent the majlis [parliament] from doing an investigation on it like it is planning on investigating some detention centers."

Among the most notorious holding centers are the Gohardasht prison in the satellite town of Karaj and a site simply known as Minus 4 in the basement of the Interior Ministry in central Tehran.

Kazem Jalali, a spokesman for a parliamentary committee investigating prison conditions, has said he would be seeking access to Minus 4.

Also known as Rajaee Shahr, Gohardasht has a large criminal ward and a high concentration of members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, a Marxist-Islamist opposition group that was banned in the early years of the Islamic republic for waging an armed guerrilla campaign.

"Important political prisoners are taken there and punished by being put in the open ward with common criminals," said one activist who requested anonymity. "Its the new Evin."

It used to be that political prisoners were taken to Section 209 of Evin, but "the international community has put so much pressure on Iran that 209 has become a less threatening place," said a young leftist activist, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Hassan, and has spent time in the prison.

"They've painted it green, collapsed two isolation cells into one larger one and generally cleaned it up," he said.

Editor's note: Iason Athanasiadis was jailed from June 17 to July 5 in Tehran's Evin prison after covering Iran's presidential elections.

Barbara Slavin provided additional reporting from Washington.

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