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Messages escape from Iran’s prisons

Officials urge judiciary to stop flow of criticism

Many arrested while protesting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2009 election victory continue their campaigns behind bars. Many arrested while protesting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2009 election victory continue their campaigns behind bars. (Ben Curtis/ Associated Press/ File 2009)
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post / October 5, 2010

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TEHRAN — For Iranian political prisoners, being locked away is not necessarily a barrier to speaking out.

Activists, politicians, and journalists — most of them arrested in the aftermath of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed June 2009 election victory — have been telling of torture, criticizing Iranian leaders, and encouraging others to continue their protests in a series of taboo-breaking letters written from prison.

Government officials and their supporters in the media say the criticisms threaten national security and are demanding that judiciary officials put a stop to them.

Abdollah Momeni, a former student leader, described in vivid detail in a recent letter how he was brutally beaten dozens of times by his interrogators, kept for weeks in a tomblike cell, and forced to confess to crimes he says he did not commit.

“All this treatment is carried out in the framework of a religious regime, justified by claims of protecting the state,’’ Momeni, 34, wrote in the letter published three weeks ago on the website of a human rights group that is critical of the Iranian government. “Haven’t the law enforcement officials and the rulers of the current government of the Islamic Republic failed the test of justice, morality, and humanity?’’

Momeni also used the letter to call for the establishment of a truth commission to investigate the conduct of prison interrogations.

Momeni is one of what foreign-based human rights groups say are about 500 prisoners of conscience, the majority of whom were arrested after the elections. Last week, the Obama administration stepped up its pressure on Ahmadinejad, with a new set of sanctions intended to punish top Iranian officials deemed responsible for the arbitrary detention, killing, torture, and beating of Iranian citizens since the 2009 presidential election.

During mass trials, many Iranian citizens admitted to having been part of a Western-inspired plot to organize riots and bring down the Islamic Republic. But many later said that their confessions had been made under duress. Most of the accused antigovernment activists, including Momeni, received long prison sentences.

It is unclear how his and dozens of other messages traveled beyond the walls of Tehran’s Evin prison, where most of the country’s political prisoners are held. But family members and friends have said the letters are authentic, and foreign-based opposition websites and television channels have published many of them, much to the anger of some Iranian officials.

“Our prisons have become a center for issuing statements and declarations,’’ Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency last week. “Where in the world do prisoners issue statements?’’ he asked.

The news agency, headed by a close Ahmadinejad ally, even accused the judiciary of secretly supporting some of the political prisoners.

There have been several recent high-profile conflicts between the government and the judiciary, including disagreement over the release last month of Sarah Shourd, an American held with two others since July 2009, and the sentencing of a woman convicted of adultery.

Remarks made during closed-door court sessions have also been leaked. During his court proceeding in July, statements from journalist Isa Saharkhiz that it was the government that was breaking the law appeared almost simultaneously on opposition websites, even though by law the court sessions are to remain secret.

In his widely distributed defense papers, translated by Iranian activists abroad, Saharkhiz argued that the judiciary had acted arbitrarily by arresting him.

He referred to a famous incident during a 2004 court case when influential cleric Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei jumped on the journalist and bit him in the shoulder. The journalist filed a complaint, but nothing happened. Mohseni-Ejei is Iran’s chief prosecutor.

“And after a complaint by him [Mohseni-Ejei] against me, I am now tortured, beaten shamelessly, arrested, and imprisoned for an unlimited period? Is this not the sign of preferential treatment in Iran’s judiciary system?’’ Saharkhiz wrote.

Last week, Saharkhiz was sentenced to three years in prison and a five-year ban on political and media activities for insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the political system, the Aftabnews website reported. Saharkhiz said Thursday that he would not appeal, according to the Sahamnews website, which quoted him as saying he did not want to be “a part of this circus.’’

Saharkhiz has also cowritten letters from prison to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil that have been posted on the Internet. And from prison, he sued Nokia Siemens Networks for providing Iranian security officials with key surveillance systems that led to his arrest.

Opposition sources say some prison wards containing political prisoners are overseen by intelligence officers, members of the Revolutionary Guard, and other security forces. During a first period of questioning, the prisoners are often kept in isolation and are permitted only later to share cells and make phone calls, opposition sources say. Most prisoners are allowed to meet with family members.

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