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Amnesty or Retribution?

By Fariba Amini



Soudabeh Ardavan's book of illustrations about torture in Iranian prisons entitled Yaadnegaarehaaye Zendaan, (Reminiscences of Prison Years) published in Sweden is one that is worth revisiting.  Arrested in 1981, at the peak of crackdown on leftist and liberal organizations , she spent the years of 1981-1989 in the infamous Evin, Ghessel Hessar, and Gohar Dasht prisons; these years were the bleakest in the history of human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic.


She witnessed women being tortured; some were as young as twelve or thirteen or much older, like the seventy-three year old mother of a jailed activist. The head of the prison at the time was a middle aged prosecutor called Asadollah Lajevardi, who was known as the Butcher of Evin and went on to become the chief of the entire prison system. A few years later Lajevardi was assassinated by members of Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), an anti-government militia based in Iraq. The guards and torturers, as Ms. Ardavan recalls, consisted mostly of ignorant young men from rural areas who were given power they had never held before, which they enjoyed using with the utmost cruelty.  In her book, she recounts the tragic story of Tavabin, those who repented - prisoners who broke under the torture and became accomplices to their own jailers, spying on their cellmates and reporting to the prison guards.  


This book, like many others written by former prisoners, tells the tale of innocent blood spilled daily under the watchful eyes of prison guards, Lajevardi, Moussavi Tabrizi - the head of Tabriz prison, Guilani, Haji Davood, Haji Rahmani, and Haj Ahmad. The cruelty at the hands of Revolutionary guards, who were given a Kalishnikov and exorbitant amounts of power, was unspeakable.  Many of the executioners were former criminals, who were let out of prison shortly after 1979 and later became pious Muslims.  It is the story of the imprisonment of young women, old women, women who were mothers, sisters, daughters.  It is one of the most telling tales of an era of unimaginable terror, during which many lost their lives, or gave birth to their children while imprisoned, or never saw their mothers or fathers again. 


For years, information about Iranian prisons and the fate of their victims have gradually been collected and documented by several human rights organizations, most recently by the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center and the Boroumand Foundation.  As a result of these efforts,  indictment of those who perpetrated crimes against political prisoners and other citizens of Iran will be forthcoming. Confronting a moral dilemma, S. Ardavan, and hundreds of victims like her, will have to decide on either amnesty or retribution.


In not so far away future, the question will be whether the victims of the Islamic Republic and their families ought to pursue those responsible for these crimes, like in Serbia/Herzegovina? Or should truth and reconciliation take place, like in South Africa?  Should these criminals be exonerated for the crimes they committed?  Should Ganji forgive his captors who had a hand in his physical and mental torture?  Should Amir Entezam forgive that a good part of his life was destroyed by the Islamic Republic?  Should Arash and Parastou Forouhar forgive those who savagely stabbed their parents in the confines of their own home?  Or should these men be brought to trial and face justice by the victims and their families?  Should many young men and women, whose sole transgression was to stand by their words and not repent or commit a simple act of defiance, like wearing a colorful chador instead of a black one, put the horror behind them and try to live normally?  Can they?  


In the most shameless way, some IR officials blame the opposition, Mojahedin, leftists, and the nationalists  for instigating the violence that was inflicted upon them.  They simply and nonchalantly say that mistakes were made.  It is of course easier and less of burden to blame others.  Before the last presidential elections, when asked about his role in the Mikonos Affair, Velayati said: "We too must cooperate in fighting terrorism according to international standard.  Let's not forget that we ourselves have been the victims of terrorism. Q: But wasn't Iran condemned in the Mikonos case in Germany? That was a show.  Some of the opposition forces outside the country wanted to disrupt our foreign relations and prevent us from having close ties with the Europeans Q: Do you mean you were not really condemned?  No!!!!" (interview with Ali Akbar Velayati, former Iranian foreign minister implicated by German Courts in the Mikonos affair with Erphan Ghanei Fard, June 1st, 2005).   


What happened to S. Aradavan and many other prisoners of those terrible years is a stain on the fabric of our history that can not easily be removed and should never be repeated. We owe it to the past and present victims of the Iranian regime, to demand justice and retribution.  Torturers must account for their crimes and pay the price.  Jailers who oversee  Evin,  Rajai Shahr and many other prisons in Iran must know that they are under the watchful eye of the world and they will one day face their victims in a court of law - for not only do we owe it to those innocent lives lost but all the ones who are still endangering themselves for the cause of freedom.  We also owe it to those who did not know right from wrong; who as young members and sympathizers of political organizations were put  in harms way by their leaders who fled the country.


Despite the issues clouding the news vis--vis Iran, an international commission and tribunal should look into the crimes of the Islamic Republic, not only for the death of hundreds of innocent human beings but the terror and murder of more than eighty opponents of the regime outside the country.


Today, the Islamic Republic is under verbal attack, possible sanctions by the UN or even a military strike by the mighty superpower and its satellites in the Middle East who have their own set agenda.  But we, as human rights advocates should let the public know that our struggle is for securing human rights values and for bringing those who were responsible for the death and destruction of life in Iran to justice.  Our interest, and those of all Iranians, is to make sure that other issues, such as economic stagnation, high unemployment, and overall malaise in the Iranian society, is not overshadowed by the nuclear issue.


For years, the Islamic Republic has brainwashed its citizens into believing that martyrdom is more meaningful than life, even though life is precious and a single human being should not be sacrificed for a worthless cause.  The prisoners of Evin, Ghessel Hessar, Rajai shahr and numerous detention centers throughout Iran should not be forgotten.  Zahra Kazemi should not be forgotten.  Our fundamental struggle is against ignorance, against those who still use their propaganda machine to achieve their goals in the name of religion maintaining the faith.  Nonetheless, it is becoming clearer and clearer to most Iranians that what this Islamic Republic has achieved in its twenty seven years of existence is nothing but fake promises, creating a society of disbelievers.


Today, especially in light of a new wave of harassment on Bahais, the Dervish, students, workers, and women, the Islamic regime under Ahmadi Nejad is diverting  the believers' attention from daily problems to the fight against Zionism in support of the Palestinian people, through numerous mass rallies and a resurgence of misinformation.  All the new rhetoric is reminiscent of the past, the early days of the revolution.


On the other hand, in order to alienate the regime and expose its lies, the real effort must be made  towards the Islamic regime's years of total disregard for Iranian people's basic rights.  It is essential to focus on the government's oppression of its citizens and their right to dissent, their right to free and fair elections, their yearning to live their lives without being harassed  as opposed to  Iran's desire to become a nuclear power.  Subsequently, Iranians-in all fronts and in one voice will have to  announce to the rest of the world that we have the same rights as other nations, even to have nuclear energy, but we also deserve to shape our future in a free society under a rational and modern regime.


 Excerpts from the book translated by F. Amini :

"A young pasdar threw a pen at me and in the rudest manner said, take this and go.  He tells me 'you were quite outspoken outside, now you are helpless. You have shut your mouth.' His hands were not supposed to touch mine; I could not follow him. I was blindfolded and he was going too fast. On the way, I could feel the many injured and tortured people on the floor. I didn't want to walk

over them.  He opens the cell and tells me to go in. I am now 23 years old. There are many around me, young, old women. It is for the first time that I realize I am in Evin.... I realize I am in big trouble. I am in cell number 209. 


I see a girl, a beautiful girl with her long black hair, her body all bruised and injured. She talks to me, she was arrested in Amol. She didn't even know why? 'I am nobody. They think I am an important person', she said. They see us talking and immediately tell us to shut up or else? Her bloody feet are noticeable. There are so many young, innocent girls.  All have been badly tortured. I want to draw their faces in my mind.  A pasdar tells us, 'Khafeh shin. Boro betamarg. Shut up, go sit there.' He takes a sheet of paper and tries to interrogate us:  'Where the hell where you in the May 1st demonstration?'


They put some of us behind the row of the ones, the many who are supposed to be executed. They tell us to write our will; it's a mental torture of the worst kind. Some nights we sit together and cry and sing songs after we have heard of executions... we are miserable, we cry quietly without hope.


I am the richest artist in the world and yet the poorest. I have many models

And very little paper and one pen to draw on.  I draw the face of mother Zomorodian.

She is a popular and very resistant woman. Her sister, Leila had been killed by Savak and now most of her family members have either been executed or in hiding.

Everday, we sit in our cell block and wait for news. They take some of us for interrogation and those who come back bring us news; they tell us who has been executed and who has been tortured. Among the new comers we find friends.  Our cell is full of people and then many are gone.  In our room, there are 150 all crammed together at times.


I see a girl, a young girl whose feet are badly injured; she is shaking and crying. She has given in under torture.  she looks sallow.  I try to comfort her and she says I saw the Imam last night in my dream while he was freeing some white birds. I try to get away from her. She has repented. Some months later, she has become one of the worst Tavabin in our cell block.

Haji Agha says:  'look at this girl with her stupid floral chador. These new ones are the ones we should not have mercy on.  If you talk too much we will put you against the wall and do what we did with your friends. If you guys don't talk and don't give us what we want, we will get rid of you.'


There is a girl.. Her name is... she was educated in the US.  It is the year1365 (1986); because of food shortage and a terrible skin disease, her skin is all cracked and blood comes out. I try to buy some olive oil from the prison store and give it to her. For some time, the store doesn't carry

Olive oil so I go to a pasdar( revolutionary guard) and he says: 'she doesn't need it, she will be gone soon! In a few days..' meaning she will be executed.


They have taken the first ones to be executed. They never come back. They take the mojaehds and they are executed on the spot and take the leftists to the Hakem Shar'e ( islamic judge); they are given the ultimate sentence because they don't pray. Everyday they must be lashed five times for five times that they don't pray. This sentence will not stop until the prisoner is either killed under lashes or will agree to pray.  They tell us: '  shoma ham be darak vasel mishavid...   we will send you to hell very soon.'


I am reading Hemingway's the Old man and the Sea. There are a few books available; it's from the time of Kajoui, the head of Evin who was killed by Mojahedin.

I am comparing our situation to the old man; he is wretched.  We have no one to support us. Our own people, from this land have forgotten about us.  Only our families look into our eyes and know what we have done and who we were... we are all alone in this hell hole."



... Payvand News - 4/17/06 ... --

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