Night after night, from her cell in solitary confinement, Mehrnoushe Solouki could hear the anguished crying of fellow inmates in Tehran's Evin prison. When the French-Iranian filmmaker asked her guards about it, they were clear: The cries were not from hardened criminals but female activists, artists, and intellectuals locked up for nothing more than their political beliefs.
Since January 18, Solouki has been back in Paris, safe in the warm embrace of family and friends -- and far from Evin prison. Yet it still haunts her.
A doctoral film student at Canada's University of Quebec, Solouki traveled to Tehran in late 2006 to research a documentary about the burial rites of Iran's religious minorities. But when she accidentally stumbled upon a mass grave of regime opponents summarily executed in 1988, she was quickly thrown in prison.
It was February 19, 2007.
"I was leaving the office of my colleague when five plainclothes agents, who seemed to be armed, stopped me," Solouki says. "From that moment on, my life totally changed."
Solouki went on to spend a month at Evin in solitary confinement, before her release on a bail of 85,000 euros ($124,000) posted by her parents in France, at the risk of losing their own house.
But authorities had confiscated the 39-year-old filmmaker's passport. Unable to leave, she waited months for her trial in November on charges that included making antigovernment propaganda and endangering national security. At the trial, she was fined around $2,000 for her activities.
The French Foreign Ministry has not provided any details about her case. But a website set up by supporters (freesolouki.org) claims she was acquitted last week and allowed to leave Iran.
'So Many Students, Intellectuals, And Activists'
In July, an unknown assailant in Tehran attacked Solouki. Her facial injuries required four separate operations. But while still in pain from the surgeries, she tells Radio Farda that what's most haunting now are the memories of her imprisonment.
"I heard the cries and yelling of other women prisoners," she says. "I thought that they were terrorists, but when I asked about it, the answer was that they were women activists arrested during the ceremony of March 8 [International Women's Day]. I couldn't tell whether this answer was tragic or comic."
But tragic seems to best describe Evin, which includes a much-feared wing that is thought to be run by Iran's secret services. In recent months, the prison's ranks have swelled with students, women's rights activists, journalists, and others amid a fierce crackdown on dissent by the Iranian government.
"I have heard some things about Guantanamo Bay -- that terrorists are kept there," Solouki says. "But I can't believe there could be a place in the world with so many students, intellectuals, writers, and women's rights activists [as Evin prison]."
Stumbling On Unofficial History
Solouki has always denied the charges against her, saying that her documentary had not yet been filmed at the time of her arrest and that none of the equipment seized from her gave any indication of the film's content.
She was granted a research license by the Iranian Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance to film a documentary on the burial traditions of religious-minority communities such as Armenian Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. She says the authorities had prior knowledge of her planned activities, such as the locations where she wanted to film, including a particular cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran.
Not just any cemetery, however. Solouki, in doing her research, was suddenly captivated by an area at the Khavaran Cemetery. She describes it as "totally different" from the other areas where she had been filming. That's because the cemetery reportedly contains a mass grave of regime opponents executed in the summer and fall of 1988.
How many people were buried there has never been established. However, estimates generally point to more than 2,800 killed, with their bodies buried in different areas around the country, not just at Khavaran Cemetery. Most were opposition leftists and mujahedin members taken from jail and summarily executed. Solouki says authorities may have believed that she intended to make a film critical of the executions.
"When I came across that reality, I couldn't turn off my camera," she says. "This is apparently part of Iran's history, but later I had a talk with professor Aghajari, who teaches at the Tarbiat Modaress University. He said, 'No, this is not part of Iran's history, and this has not entered Iran's history.'"
Solouki says the academic "even warned me that anyone who researched that part of Iran's past -- not history -- would be persecuted, because it is likely that bringing up this case, the Khavaran case -- would take Iran and those in power who were involved to international courts."
During her ordeal, Solouki says she often felt her life to be endangered, and even briefly sought refuge at the French Embassy in Tehran. But in the end, she was fortunate.
Unlike Zahra Kazemi, a 54-year-old Iranian-Canadian photographer who was beaten to death at Ervin prison in 2003, Solouki has survived. Now, she plans to make a film about her story, to tell the world about what she endured inside Evin prison -- and what scores of dissidents continue to suffer there daily.
(Toumaj Tahbaz is a correspondent with Radio Farda)
... Payvand News - 01/23/08 ... --