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Iran's jails: an inside view

Tehran's most notorious prison may have improved but abuses have been reported in new jails.

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.”