YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Imprisoned Iranian protesters share a bond forged in hell

Former inmates describe the horrors they endured during five days in Kahrizak prison in Tehran after their arrests during postelection unrest.

February 14, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim

Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — "What is this place?" the guard shouted.

"The end of the world!" the prisoners replied.

"Are you happy with the food?" he demanded.

"Yes, sir!" they answered.

"Have you been tamed?" he asked.

"Yes, sir!"

As ordered, they answered as one. And over the next five hellish days, they forged a bond that would remain even when they were freed. Cut off from the world, the 147 Iranian protesters rounded up during a July 9 demonstration in Tehran and stuffed into the notorious Kahrizak prison found they could rely only on themselves.

At first some of the prisoners hogged the space in their cramped cell or stretched their legs out. But as hours turned into days, they all began to cooperate.

"As our stay in Kahrizak lingered, a trust grew among us, and the selfish inmates were outnumbered by the unselfish ones," recalled Hatef, 22, who asked that his last name not be used out of fear for his safety.

He was among several former detainees, their lawyers and relatives who provided a rare inside account of a prisoner abuse scandal that continues to serve as a rallying point.

Some of the protesters had been horribly beaten even before they arrived at Kahrizak, and the prisoners banded together to care for the most seriously wounded: the aspiring filmmaker, the nephew of one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's security chiefs, the son of a conservative politician.

On Thursday nights, the evening Iranians devote to the souls of the dead, some of the former detainees contact one another via coded text messages.

And they meet at the cemetery to honor the dead of Kahrizak.

Thrown together

It began in a police station courtyard.

Their legs lashed together with electrical cables, the demonstrators -- part of the protest movement that sprang up after June's disputed presidential election -- were lined up while a judge read out the charges: acting against national security, arson, damaging public property, clashing with law enforcement and colluding with foreign news media.

"All of you will stay in jail at Kahrizak and by the end of summer you will be tried in court," said the judge, identified -- by two of the former detainees and an attorney pursuing legal action -- as Sohrab Heydarifard, deputy to Saeed Mortazavi, the notorious former Tehran prosecutor general.

They signed the confessions they were ordered to sign. At 5 p.m., they were placed on buses and driven out of town toward the desert, said Saleh Nikbakht, an attorney who is pursuing a case on behalf of the family of one of the detainees.

Security forces ordered them not to look out the windows. They drove south of the city to a barren stretch of land about 10 miles from the city center. Still handcuffed, they were ordered to get out and squat in the dirt. Later, they were ordered to strip and put on prison uniforms.

The young men were hustled into a metal cell of about 700 square feet. There were no beds, so the prisoners tried to sleep on the ground or on filthy, bug-infested pieces of carpeting. The toilet was a hole in the ground. By evening they numbered 180 to 190, as common criminals joined the protesters, and the July heat radiated off the room's tin walls.

"Some of us fainted, as there was no ventilation and the weather was hot," Hatef said.

But at night the desert heat receded and the room became bone-chillingly cold.

They tried to drink the fetid, salty water that smelled of urine, when it was even available, but wound up mostly using it to cool and clean themselves.

Exhaust from generators outside came into the room when the wind shifted. "The inside of our cell was from time to time unbearably polluted," Hatef said.

The guards said the food rations would be given only to the criminals, not the protesters. The few demonstrators who spoke out were ordered to walk on all fours.

On the second day at Kahrizak, two or three dozen more inmates were added to the room. They had come from a place the guards called "the cage," for inmates thought to be suffering from infectious diseases.

"They were zombies more than human beings," Hatef said.

Beatings and abuse

Over the five days, beatings came regularly -- when someone complained or whenever the guards felt like it. To make an example of an inmate who protested about the conditions, guards hung him by his ankles and beat him with plastic pipes.

Amir Javadifar, a young filmmaker and actor, had been badly beaten even before he got to Kahrizak, and his condition worsened.

"From the first night in Kahrizak, he lost sight of one of his eyes due to being battered by a hard object, as later we would see in the report of forensic doctors examining his dead body," Nikbakht said. At night, the soldiers stomped on the tin roof, or smashed the walls with their batons or the butts of their rifles. "The noise drove us crazy," Hatef said.

One morning early in the detention they awoke to find Mohammad Kamrani, a nephew of an official working in Ahmadinejad's office, in dire condition.

Los Angeles Times Articles