By Fereshteh Ghazi, Rooz Online
The 2009 presidential elections in Iran were a turning point in the history of the Islamic republic. They created a crisis in trust for the regime, which continues till today. Specifically, the results of the vote count that reinstated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were challenged on a large scale resulting in massive demonstrations that eventually put the two leading candidates who challenged the sitting president under house arrest. They are still confined to that today. But details about how the elections were rigged leak out occasionally while much speculation continues as well. This week, Rooz spoke with Ehsan Mehrabi, a journalist who was at the Ministry of the Interior on that fateful election date; but not monitoring the election results at the Election Commission in the agency. He, and other journalists there, were sort of locked-up at the ministry’s conference hall, prevented from having any access to the election commission at the agency on the actual voting day, where conflicting announcements were made at the last hours of the day.
This is the second part of Rooz’s interview with Mehrabi, the first part covering his days at the infamous wards 209 and 240 of Evin prison, and the proceedings at his trial. Now, Mehrabi talks about the atmosphere that was dominant at the powerful election commission of the ministry of interior on election day, and also in ward 350 of prison, where he spent a year. In this interview, he talks about the pressure that the regime has applied on his family members after the publication of his first interview, the executions that took place, the death of Hadi Saber and more. Mehrabi was the parliamentary journalist and wrote for such newspapers as Hambasteghi, Tose’, Etemad Melli and Farhikhtegan Ghalam, all liberal and non-state publications.
Rooz: You were at the election commission on election day in 2009, what was going on there?
Mehrabi: I was there then and did not know much about what was going out outside the building. I was surprised when I came out. At the commission, the news went around by word of mouth. One news was that Mir-Hossein Mousavi was planning to come to the commission. But no real news came into the headquarters. Even prior to the voting, the ministry appeared to be poised to win the election. We sensed that they seemed confident that they (i.e., Ahmadinejad) would win in any way. When we told the other reformist kids who called us from the outside of the atmosphere inside the building, they brushed us off as being influenced by the events inside. We had no idea that they planned to rig the elections at this scale. When we spoke with reporters from the other side (i.e., supporting the administration), they told us that Ahmadinejad would win with 24 million votes. We stayed at the commission all night but had no idea of what was going on. We did see the equipment and reconnaissance motor-bikes at the ministry, but did not know their purpose. And nobody would explain either. It was only later when we came out that we realized that the very same bike-riders had been used against the gatherings of people. We heard that Mousavi’s campaign offices in Gheitarieh district of Tehran had been attacked. As night fell, General Radan came to the election commission. When we told him that we had heard rumors of kidnappings, he laughed it off as a joke.
Rooz: So you did not know about the protests and clashes when you were inside?
Mehrabi: No. On the day of elections, they took us to the ministry’s conference hall, which was adjacent to the commission, but the doors of the hall were locked, and so we were not in the exchange of the news that was going on. It was only the next day, when we came out, that we learned of what had taken place outside.
Rooz: So you were not in the election commission offices when the vote counting was going on?
Mehrabi: Yes, and we had no access to the commission or anybody. It was as if the commission had been dismantled. The only place with which we had contact was the Central News Unit (of the official IRNA news agency). The reporter from the unit was Ranjbaran and he was confident that Ahmadinejad was the winner. We were kind of locked up at the conference hall because we had no way of communicating with the election commission next door or the other offices of the ministry, or any person. We occasionally saw some representatives from the candidates, but only after 5 or 6 pm. But from the time when the presidential candidates began to protest and we heard that people were not allowed into the voting boots and that there were no ballots left, we saw nobody. I remember well when Mr. Torknejad, Mousavi’s representative at the commission announced at 10am that in some provinces including East and West Azerbaijan, voting ballots had run out, but nobody cared. He said that he had complained about this to even Mr. Golpaygani, the head of the supreme leader’s office, but he too did not pay attention. The head of the election commission, Daneshjoo too did not respond to our questions. The only communication we saw from him was when he came in at night with a piece of paper in his hand from which he read out the results, and then left. They had created such an atmosphere that nobody dared ask a question. When some did, Mr. Mardookhi would begin to shout and protest and chant slogans against the Greens.
Rooz: After you came out of the ministry and saw what was going on outside, did you return to the ministry?
Mehrabi: No. Never. I had covered other elections, but after Kardan and then Mahsooli came to the ministry, things had changed dramatically were shut off, climaxing during the 2009 elections.
Rooz: In your first interview you had said that your experience in ward 350 of Evin, where you spent a year, was very bitter. Can you explain?
Mehrabi: Yes, when I was put in ward 350, I noticed a bitter incident. A man was sitting in the yard, smoking, and a group sat around him crying. When I asked what was going on, they said that he was going to be executed shortly and that he had not accepted to write a petition requesting a pardon. This was a man who was executed the next day with Jaafar Kazemi. This was a very bitter incident for me. The next day, Ali Ajami was exiled to Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj.
Rooz: How was the year you spent there?
Mehrabi: As Bahareh Hedayat wrote in her last letter, a person finds himself in a different world in prison. People acquire and share similar feelings. You sometimes crave for things that you would not in normal life. Even our night dreams change and become confined to the prison. There were times when I could not remember the names of prominent people or colleagues outside.
Rooz: You had said that on the days of visitations you felt the strongest psychological pressure.
Mehrabi: When prisoners returned from visits, you would normally expect them to be happy to have seen their loved ones. But in reality, those that smoked would immediately go to a corner and smoke a cigarette. Those that did not smoke would go to bed to sleep. I remember in Ward 209, if you were left alone, you could stay asleep for two days continuously (ward 209 is an interrogation ward, while 350 is a post-interrogation ward). Pressure was so high in ward 350 after visitations that people slept a lot and it seemed as if prisoners could not communicate with their loved ones and could not understand the news that family members brought during visits. One journalist had said that at first he looked forward to the regular visits with his family members, but later he only wished for the visitation hour to end quickly. Many such as Abdollah Momeni (a prominent student activist who reported on prison abuse) would say they had no hope of being released. But despite the pressure, ward 350 was different from 209 or 240. When Hossein Marashi came, things changed for the better a bit, especially in the area of doing exercise. Arash Alai was a doctor who tried to change daily routines. Some artists tried to make conditions more tolerable for others. When on Bahman 25 they brought in about 350 new prisoners, the atmosphere in ward 350 changed as prisoners saw that people were still protesting. It gave them hope and improved their spirits.
Rooz: When you were in ward 350 some political prisoners were executed. How did you deal with things then?
Mehrabi: When prisoners were paged to be taken to be executed, other prisoners would say, “They have started again. They are taking them up to be executed.” Everything would go chaotic then.
Rooz: When Mr. Saber died you were in ward 350 and saw the events.
Mehrabi: I remember when Hadi Saber and Taghi Rahmani were in ward 350, news came that engineer Sahabi was not feeling well. The two had strong emotional ties to Sahabi, so it was very difficult for them. When Haleh Sahabi died, things became even worse for all of them. Some prayed because there was nothing else they could do about these bitter events. When Hadi Saber began his hunger strike Arash Alai watched on him. Alai said that in fact the strike comforted Saber, who wrote a letter to his children explaining why he was doing it and that it was not merely emotional. Some influential people outside prison had written to Saber to stop his strike, but prison officials withheld these letters. One Friday morning we heard that Saber had been taken to the prison clinic because he was not feeling well. At the clinic, the doctor had hit him and then returned him to the ward. When they came to take Saber to the clinic again he refused and said they beat him up the last time. They took him to a hospital outside the prison, but it was too late then. Arash Alai and other doctors in the ward said that if the first doctor at the clinic had attended to Saber and sent him to hospital, instead of beating him, things may not have ended the way they did. When the news of Saber’s death came on Sunday, the atmosphere in the ward changed completely. Even those who normally did not display their tears to others could not stop crying. Then 12 others started a hunger strike. But prison officials disregarded even these.
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