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Trapped in Iran's dark legal labyrinth

A Frenchman's 15-month ordeal provides a rare inside view of a mysterious system, its interrogators' tactics and a notorious prison.

July 17, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

Dubai, United Arab Emirates — "YOU'RE free!" the cell leader at Evin prison told the inmate. "Get your stuff together." Stephane Lherbier dared not trust them.

Lherbier, a 34-year-old Frenchman and operator of a charter boat, accidentally had wandered into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf during a fishing trip. For that, he had been locked up for 15 months in Iran, separated from his wife, Veronique, and their 3-year-old, Lola. Repeatedly, authorities had told him he was about to be released, only to dash his hopes in what he considered a form of psychological torture.

Court officers hustled him through quickie trials. Intelligence officers cloaked in darkness blindfolded him and subjected him to prolonged interrogations. He cried and begged for better treatment. Instead he found himself behind the giant gates of Evin, an imposing stone compound that has loomed large in the imaginations of Iranians since it was built by Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi more than 60 years ago.

An unknown number of Iranian political dissenters and at least three Iranian Americans seized by the government reside in Evin prison. Lherbier's account of his time there, provided in lengthy interviews and corroborated by Western diplomats in Tehran, gives a rare look at one of the world's most mysterious legal systems and the web of interrogation and imprisonment surrounding it.

Iranian officials insist the country's record on prisons and adherence to human rights standards has improved markedly in the last few decades. They note that Lherbier was allowed a weeklong break from prison in the middle of his sentence.


The fish weren't biting the morning of Nov. 29, 2005. Donald Klein, a 52-year-old German on vacation in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, had hired Lherbier to take him on a fishing trip in the gulf. Looking for better prospects, they motored by the tiny island of Abu Musa, about 50 miles from both Iran and Dubai. There, they were stopped by a gray, unflagged military boat equipped with a .20-caliber machine gun. Placed under arrest, they were flown to the Iranian city of Bandar Abbas and held at a military base.

For three days, their captors treated them politely and fed them well, although they could get no information and were not allowed to speak with each other, Lherbier said.

On the fourth day, Lherbier was awakened at 2 a.m. and taken to a room. The solidly built former factory worker was placed in a chair in a corner, facing the wall. He estimates there was silence for 15 minutes. Some people entered the room. Lherbier could not see faces as they began speaking in Persian to him.

Suddenly, someone pinched the back of his neck very hard and began screaming into his ear.

Lherbier thought he heard a gun cock. He winced in pain and cried for mercy. Everyone seemingly was speaking at once.

Through the chaos, a voice spoke in English, the first words Lherbier had been able to understand since he was arrested.

"He wants to kill you," the voice told Lherbier. "He wants to cut your head off. And you can be sure that nobody will find your body."

With that, the interrogations began.

The questioning lasted for hours over days, always starting after midnight. Officials drilled away, asking about Lherbier's family, his friends, his youth in the southern French city of Lyon, his military service in a special French mountain unit, his lifelong passion for the sea and his decision to gamble his life savings on a charter fishing business in the Persian Gulf.

Interrogators accused him of being a spy, alleging that he worked for British intelligence. They said they knew he had been in Iraq twice for training, that Klein was a colonel and he a captain. The fishing business he started in Dubai earlier that year was a cover, the Iranians told him.

After five days, a doctor came to examine Lherbier and Klein. Their captors said the ordeal was over -- they could go. They put the pair of them in a car and drove them off the base.

"It's been terrible," Klein whispered to Lherbier as they left. "But at least we'll be free now."

Instead, the two men were taken to a different compound and locked inside windowless cells. Lherbier slept on a floor with filth and cockroaches, wrapping himself in a coarse, dirty blanket, trying to ignore the faint smell of chlorine. Silence stretched on for hours.

In the night, the men were once again dragged to interrogations.

Lherbier explained repeatedly that on his map, Abu Musa was marked as part of the United Arab Emirates. He said he was new to the gulf and didn't know the island was among several claimed by both countries. He wrote down answers on sheets of paper. His interrogators angrily ripped them up.

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