Iran's jails: an inside view

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Iran’s jails have a notorious reputation for brutal conditions and harsh interrogation methods that include torture.

Now Iranian and international human rights organizations warn that a string of hidden detention sites have been established throughout Tehran and its suburbs by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The disturbing reports come from many of the thousands of Iran’s opposition supporters who have been arrested in the anti-government demonstrations since the disputed June 12 elections. Several of those released describe being kept in unimaginable conditions inside industrial containers, storerooms and a former Revolutionary Guard arms factory hastily converted into a prison.

“They herded us blindfolded into what I thought was a stadium where they beat us solidly for three days and threatened to execute us,” said one recently released prisoner who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. “They said to us that since we haven’t been registered, officially we don’t exist.”

In July, the death of Mohsen Rooholamini, 25, the son of a prominent conservative, spurred Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to order the closure of Kahrizak detention center and the release of 140 political prisoners from Evin Prison.

“The main reason behind Khamenei’s order to close Kahrizak was to prevent Majlis (Iran’s parliament) from doing an investigation on it like it is planning on investigating some detention centers,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a specialist on Iranian politics at the Washington Institute.

Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi, the only clerical candidate to participate in the presidential elections, wrote a formal letter of protest to the government’s intelligence ministry.

“The security forces commit the most harsh physical and psychological tortures and behavior towards the detainees without taking responsibility for any of their deeds under the name of Islam,” wrote Karroubi.

Some of 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, announced that he would be seeking access to Minus 4 but it is unclear whether permission was ever granted.

Prison authorities have been known to play hard and fast with visiting parliamentary delegations: Caspian Makan, the boyfriend of killed protester Neda Agha Soltan, was imprisoned for 65 days in a bid to keep him quiet, and he described how his jailers shunted him behind a wall during an external inspection.

Iran’s most infamous prison, Evin, has been renovated and it appears the conduct of the jailers and interrogators has been moderated. Instead of beating detainees or hanging them up from the ceiling by their feet, they are now more likely to use psychological operations. These include de-personalizing prisoners by referring to them by their numbers or telling prisoners that their family members have been arrested and will be tortured. One detainee described hearing his elderly father being tortured in an adjoining cell while he sat opposite his interrogator, alone and unscathed.

But violence is still common currency in Evin. Iranian feminist Shadi Sadr described in a radio interview following her escape from Iran earlier this year how she witnessed prison guards beating silent prisoners sitting in a classroom-sized hall. Whoever cried out in pain would be beaten more harshly, she said.

I was worried when I was arrested by Iranian plainclothes security agents this summer at Tehran airport and taken to Evin Prison’s Section 209, a top-secret jail within a top-security jail that is directly controlled by the Intelligence Ministry and beyond the purview of Iran’s judiciary.

As a foreigner, I was treated relatively well. My cell was 8-feet-long by 6-feet-wide, contained an en-suite bathroom with a showerhead gaping over a Turkish toilet and a ceiling window that allowed natural light in. Sanitary products and towels were made available after the first week and I was exposed to little physical violence. Aside from irregular interrogation sessions by day or night and 24-hour electric light that rendered sleep difficult, there was little psychological torture.

“What had you thought? That we would start pulling out your fingernails?” one of my interrogators joked with me during a lull in a session.

Hassan, a young leftist activist who spent time in Evin, has a similar view of the jail. “The international community has put so much pressure on Iran that 209 has become a less threatening place,” he said. “They’ve painted it green, collapsed double isolation cells into larger singles and generally cleaned it up.”