'What Will Happen To Those Arrested In Iran? I Can Tell You'
|"Inside there was nothing to
sleep on and no electric light. There was no way to tell the
time except by the daylight when it shone through the watchman's
peephole at one end and a ventilation vent at the other."
By official count, some 450 people have been arrested in
opposition protests against Iran's presidential election results. Many sources
inside Iran put the count in the thousands. To those arrested 10 years ago, in
Iran's last great wave of student demonstrations, what the new detainees face
next is already clear. Ali Fathi (a pseudonym) was one of those students
arrested in 1999. This is his story.What will happen to the people who have been arrested in the protest rallies in
Iran? I can tell you.
I was arrested during the 1999 student demonstrations in Tehran, exactly 10
What I did was as trivial in terms of real crime as what the protesters in Iran
have done now by expressing rage over the presidential election results.
But the punishment I received was so out of proportion to my actions - and so
truly criminal - that I had to flee my homeland and seek political asylum in
In 1999, Mohammad Khatami was president and reformist hopes were high that the
Islamic republic's oppressive ideological atmosphere was lifting slightly.
I was a university student and we were enjoying an unprecedented amount of
freedom to speak our minds in class. That included the compulsory class all
students have to take in the roots of the Islamic Revolution.
'Change Was In The Air'
At that time, even the presence of the Basij among the students - 50 percent of
all university places are reserved for the members of the militia - did not have
its usual chilling effect. Change was in the air.
Then came the sparks that ignited the demonstrations that swept campuses across
Tehran and spread to other cities in the summer of 1999.
Some students at Tehran University protested the closure of one of the most
popular reformist newspapers. Their small demonstration was attacked by
vigilantes armed with clubs who beat at least one student to death as police did
Our rage boiled over. Tens of thousands of students took to the streets
demanding the dismissal of police officials. We also called on Khatami to speed
up reforms and give us a more open society.
I was with a group of about 50 students on my campus which tore down a poster of
the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that hung in one of the buildings.
Someone set fire to the picture. The riot police took the simplest course. They
locked the campus gates and arrested everyone found inside.
But they did not take us to a police station. Instead, we were blindfolded and
taken outside of the legal system to a place where our parents could never find
'Stripped Us Naked'
The place was one of the semi-abandoned military camps outside Tehran that date
back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. There we were shoved into metal freight
containers - the kind used for shipping. They stripped us naked and gave us two
Inside there was nothing to sleep on and no electric light. There was no way to
tell the time except by the daylight when it shone through the watchman's
peephole at one end and a ventilation vent at the other.
I was in the container with four other boys. We were
all barely 20. And we were inside for two weeks -- naked, powerless, and
face-to-face with the fear of being totally at the mercy of our captors.
I was in the container with four other boys.
We were all barely 20. And we were inside for two weeks -- naked,
powerless, and face-to-face with the fear of being totally at the mercy
of our captors.
Food was thrown in once a day. From time to time, we were taken out for
questioning. And both those processes helped to destroy whatever shreds of our
The first interrogation sessions were simply beatings. Men who were clearly
convinced that we had violated all laws of God and man kicked us until we fell
down. Then they kicked our faces. As they did, they shouted "Allahu Akbar,"
calling on God to be pleased with them. They were skinheads, but with hair and
Then the real questioning began, and it, too, was to show there was no way out.
'No Correct Answers'
The interrogators wanted to know who pulled down the picture of the Supreme
Leader, to what organizations I belonged, and to what organizations my friends
and classmates belonged.
It did not matter what I said. There were no correct answers.
"Do you know Masud Rajavi (the spiritual leader of the armed resistance group,
the People's Mujahedin of Iran)?"
"You are lying. Everyone knows that bastard. You are lying about everything."
Sometimes they seemed to want to understand my problem.
"You were one of those who shouted," the interrogator said.
"No, I wasn't."
"You were! Go ahead and shout now. Shout as much as you want."
And they offered treatment.
"You have extreme tendencies. You just need some balancing."
And then, turning to one of the strongmen, "Brother X, take him for balancing."
The balancing was more beating.
Nothing To Confess
The interrogations were conducted with a hood over my head. Looking down, I
could see only the floor. Once I saw the hands of one of the interrogators after
he cuffed my head. His hands were twice the size of mine.
After two weeks, I was transferred to a succession of other prison cells, with
no idea where I was. Sometimes, the cells were pitch dark. Sometimes, they had
four brilliant light bulbs shining 24 hours a day.
I was lucky I had nothing to confess. And I was lucky that made me of no real
interest to my captors. After eight months, as inexplicably as the way they had
treated me, they let me go.
But now I was a criminal with a history of imprisonment. And that meant all of
Iran would be my lifetime prison.
With a prison record, I could not return to university. I could not get a job.
My only course was to leave Tehran and return to my small provincial city. And
there, where everyone knows everyone, I was an outcast.
My parents had all but given me up for dead. For months they had gone around
every prison in Tehran trying to locate me. At every place, they were told there
was no record of me being detained. But one official said it was likely I had
been made to "disappear."
The police sent my prison file to an old man in my home town who had lost three
sons in the Iran-Iraq war. He owned a men's shoe store next to the local bank
that no one shopped in because the fashions were 10 years old. But he was
powerful because he was strongly linked to the Revolutionary Guards.
This man was my parole officer. I had to appear before him each week to show I
was still in town. If I wanted to visit friends in another city, I needed his
His only demand of me was to pray. Not just in the mosque but in private prayer
meetings as well. And eventually, I complied.
That was how I began my journey out of Iran. As he gained trust in me, I could
more easily get permission for longer absences. And on one of these absences, I
slipped out of the country.
The escape route that people take -- across the Iranian border, across Turkey,
by ship to Greece, and overland to France -- is well known. Some of those who
are now in jail for protesting the presidential election results - if they are
released -- will undoubtedly take it, too. It is horrible, full of dangers, and
as dehumanizing as being in prison.
I was tricked by traffickers as one group handed me off to another that claimed
it had not been paid. So, I soon ran out of money.
I rode in freight containers. And I rode hanging onto the bottom of a speeding
truck. That means sitting on a small metal bar a half-meter above the asphalt
and hanging on with arms that become so paralyzed the muscles no longer
contract. I was numb with fear.
Was it worth this to escape my home country and to leave my parents and dearest
friends? Of course not.
But for me it was a question I never had to ask. The government of my country
took my country away from me. And my crime was nothing more than taking part in
a political demonstration.
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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