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Prison

Truth and confession
Interview with a former Evin inmate

Fariba Amini
October 4, 2004
iranian.com

It's good to leave each day behind,
Like flowing water, free of sadness.
Yesterday is gone and its tale told.
Today new seeds are growing.
-- Jallaledin Rumi

When a man is arrested and -- under torture -- confesses to acts he never committed, when under duress and psychological pressure he is told to say things that he was never involved in or admit to participation in groups which he never belonged to, what is he to do? Is he supposed to take all the mistreatment, Ta'zir (Arabic word for flogging) which causes severe infection and dehydration, or being hung from the ceiling for a long period? What is he to do? Is he supposed to take it all or just succumb to the demands of his torturers?

Such is the true story of two Iranians in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Habibolah Davaran and Dr. Farhad Behbehani. The story goes back to 13 years ago. They were arrested and imprisoned after signing an open letter to then President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, expressing their ideas and pointing out that the revolution had deviated from its original ideals. The now famous letter became known as the "90- Signature Letter".

They were educated men in their 50's and 60's. Dr. Behbehani, had recieved his PhD in chemistry and Dr. Davaran was a pharmacist. False charges ranging from engaging in anti-government activities to making contact with American officials were made against them. Both men had belonged to the Jameeyat-e Defaa az Azaadi va Haakemeeyat-e Melli (Society for the Defense of of Freedom and National Soverignty/Self-Determination) which had been formed by the late Mehdi Bazargan in 1985. The late Ali Ardalan, of the National Front, and many others were members of the group.

After undergoing torture and finally being released, they decided to write their memoirs in a book, titled "In the Company of Haji Agha, the Story of a Confession" which was published a year ago, and then quickly removed from all bookstores in Iran. Their memoirs show a contrast: Davaran resists torture whereas Behbehani succumbs and goes on public TV denouncing his actions.

Dr. Davaran died of a tumor a few months ago. But I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Behbehani during his visit to Washington. The following are translated excerpts from his book, and parts of an interview:

Davaran:
The date was 7th of Tir . There were skirmishes in prison. It seemed someone important had arrived; at around 10:30, my anticipation was answered. The door to my cell opened and my interrogator came in with two other people who seemed to have a higher rank than him. "This is Mr. Davaran," he said, "he is like that Japanese soldier who until the end was loyal to his superiors, even to the Emperor of Japan. So far, he has said nothing... but he doesn't know that his friend (Mr. Behbanani) has told us everything there is to know..."

Then they started to beat me again: "Tell us what was your relationship with Bazargan? What did you say to Carter's representative? What was Bazargan's relationship with the Americans?" I said, I have never heard a single lie from Mr. Bazargan. He started to insult me again and the beatings got worse. In the midst of it, I heard another person who said, "Let me give him some lashing, Haji Agha, it's going to look good on my resume!"

I was walking outside, in the prison yard; for the first time after a long time, I saw someone familiar; it was Farhad Behbahani. Then I heard a familiar voice; someone was talking to that person and was telling him, "Shame on you, I am not American, I am an Iranian and I am a Moslem."

Suddenly I knew who it was, it was Dr. Abedi. I heard that they had kept him in terrible conditions in prison. it was quite cold and I couldn't tolerate the fact that so much injustice was done to people who had served their country all their lives. And now in old age they have to endure such humiliations and torture.

Then the torturer came and they took me to the third floor. Haji Agha entered the room and asked me again that someone had transferred money into the account of our organization and that in 1985, a representative of Jimmy Carter had met with me. "Tell us everything because we are aware of all the facts," he said. I again declined and said, "Why don't you show me these allegations and documents so I could see for myself."

He got mad and started to slap me real hard; blood was running from my nose and I fell down. I lost my composure. They got annoyed and took me to the prison hospital. When the doctor saw me there in that condition he said, "Why don't you just tell them everything so they won't do this to you anymore. If you hadn't told me who you were, I wouldn't have recognized you. You are going to have yourself killed."

Behbehani:
Both Haji Agha and "Mr. 25" (every interrogator who tortured us had a number) asked me why I had gone to Ankara to get a visa for the US. They wanted to hear something that wasn't true; that I had in fact had contacts with Americans regarding political matters. He asked me what I had to tell the American consul in Ankara? I told him the exact reason. He became all upset and got up and while leaving the room, told me, "I will have you beaten so much that you will finally come to term and confess." I was terribly shaken by his words.

Then "Mr. 25" entered the room and gave me a piece of paper and a pen; he said, "before I take you to the basement again, write down everything." The thought of going to the basement for more flogging and torture made me shiver. Haji Agha was in his mid 30's it seemed and quite dedicated to the ideals of the Islamic rRevolution and supposedly a devout religious man. He believed that we were anti-regime individuals and anyone who deviated from the revolution should be taught a good lesson and a good beating.

I finally wrote: "If I have done anything to insult the Imam and the great Islamic Revolution, or its functionaries, I apologize; it isn't important that I never had contact with American officials, the point is that I was member of an organization that worked in the same line as the US and for that I am guilty."

I guess at that moment, "Mr. 25" had realized that he had broken me. I felt so weak and so helpless that I wished to God, I had actually had made contacts with Americans so I could confess to it and the tortures would stop. I guess "Mr. 25" was now relieved and said, "we don't want to see you this way," Mr. Behbehani, "your family is quite worried about you and so are we!"

Later they took me to shave. I hadn't shaved for two months and now I had grown a huge beard. They gave me some clean prison clothes and gave me a liquid to drink; I drank it with an appetite to regain some energy. I complained to him about my feet (it was all swollen and because of dehydration I had so much pain). He said "don't worry nothing is wrong with your feet!"

Then while giving me a pen and papers, he said: "now tell me about Mrs. Salehian (Mrs. Farnoudi). What do you know? What was your relationship with her and the monarchists? You haven't told us everything you know." It seemed that he already knew everything about our organization and anything that I tried to conceal wouldn't have made any difference.

In the famous letter to President Rafsanjani, a group of us, had written about the terrible conditions prevailing in the country and had made suggestions to make some changes. We had reiterated that though we might face prison or other pressures, as responsible citizens we must point out the injustices in our country. This letter was signed by more than 90 individuals and issued in Ordibehesht 1369 (mid-spring, 1990). Twenty three of the signatories were arrested and imprisoned and some have died since.

I had also pointed out that I never belonged to any specific organization or party that only upon the initiation of Mohandess Bazargan, who in 1995, formed the society in defense of liberty and national sovereignty. I had joined the said society and we were working within the framework of the laws of the Islamic Republic. We wanted to preserve the constitutional law and work to ensure the rights of all the citizens.

It was after the publication of the famous letter, that after two months, I along with 22 other people were blindfolded and taken to prison. In prison, someone by the name of Haji Agha who seemed to be a young man (I never saw his face but from his voice I believe he was in his mid 30's) came to my room and asked me several irrelevant questions that had nothing to do with the present time. I had no idea about the answers. Then he slapped me so hard that I fell from my seat. Then, again and again he slapped me. He got agitated and finally told me, "We are going to send you to the basement," and insulted me continuously.

I was laid down on my stomach and my feet and hands were tied. Then he said loudly to "Mr. 25" flog him. Then "Mr. 25" said, "Besmellah," and began flogging my feet. I said, "Ya Allah (Oh God)." He got more angry and said, "What did you say? You brought up the name of the Almighty, flog him more..." I passed out...

I wanted to wash up for prayers. So I asked the prison guard if I could use the facilities. He got angry with me: "Why do you want to go to the bathroom and wash up?" He said, "If you were a true Moslem you wouldn't be here. Don't fool yourself; you are not a true believer." I had prayed all my life and believed in our religion. His words were so demeaning; it was to crush my spirit.

For three months I had not seen my family. I didn't know that they had any news of me. Haji Agha told me that he would make sure that I would see them soon. He asked me about Dr. Abedi; "what were his anti-Islamic ways? Did he use alcoholic beverages? Did he shake the hands of women and then held on to them for a long time? Did he have any kind of sexual deviations?" I should have known that while asking me these ridiculous questions, Dr. Abedi had in fact been arrested. I heard later on that despite his old age, he had been flogged. I was deeply saddened.

One other time, Haji Agha who used sarcastic words to calm me down said, "Why don't you just write that your wife was also involved with you in anti-government activities. then we can arrest her as well and bring her next to you so that you won't have to worry anymore!" Such sarcastic remarks were so ruthless considering my state of mind and physical health. One day, he brought a mirror to me and said "Look at yourself, your face is the same as before." I said, "But I have lost a lot of weight especially in the stomach area." He said in ridicule, "You should be happy about that. In prison, we have been able to make you lose some fat!"

I was having problems with my prostate and had asked for a physician, which had not been granted. I had to use the bathroom constantly. In one of the incidents, I could not hold myself and had used a newspaper to urinate. "Mr. 25" came to my cell and said, "Aren't you ashamed to put this filthy newspaper on the Koran?" I said, "What could I have done, I did not want to insult our holy book (I read the Koran daily) I had no choice." I had mistakenly put the paper on the Koran.

I remember it was two months after my release that I was sitting with my son Behzad and my wife Fereshteh; our son was a member of the Iranian national swimming team. He asked if he could have a party for some of his friends. We both said no. Don't you know that it might cause problems? If the revolutionary guards come and see that there is a party in our house they might arrest everyone especially since my house in under surveillance. My son, Behzad said, "Who cares? A little flogging doesn't kill anyone." I said, "Don't you care about my situation?" In a tone that I could not forget he said, "Why should we think about your situation, when you didn't think about ours and went on public TV?" That statement was like a blow to my head. For families like ours, I realized it isn't important that we go to prison, but how we come out is what makes the difference.

At that moment freedom did not mean anything to me. When I was tortured and I finally gave in under the pressure, I realized for the first time that I was not the person who I thought I was. I was not a strong person and the only thing on my mind was to get out of the hellhole I was put in. I had made false confessions under duress and for that I knew I would feel guilty for the rest of my life... I thought to myself, I am a terrible person.

I came out of prison feeling guilty; I knew my friends were disappointed in me but would not demonstrate it so that I would not feel bad but deep down I knew I had let them down. I remember one of the last times I saw the late Bazargan was when I went to the 40th day memorial service for Dr. Mobasheri, the minister of justice under Bazargan. He pointed out to me to come and sit beside him and told me, "Don't you worry. For me, you are the same Farhad Behbehani that you were." He comforted me with his kind words. Then in my ear he said, "Just write what happened to you in prison. Write your memoirs because even if no one reads it today, it is important for the next generations to know what happened to people like you. It is part of history that must be told."

That is why I decided to write the book and jointly with my friend and colleague, Dr. Davaran (he was 78 when he died). We wrote down our prison diairies. Another reason we decided to write our memoirs, is to let people know of our experiences and to let those who decide to engage in political activities to foresee what may happen to them and how to deal with such a situation. When you go to prison for the first time, you may say or do things that are wrong but then a second time, hopefully, you will not make the same mistakes.

After the publication of the book, we were arrested again and taken to Evin while waiting for payment of a huge bail sum before our release. We paid for our own transportion to Evin. When we arrived, Dr. Davaran couldn't even walk properly; I had to hold his hand. There were skirmishes around the prison area. Parents of the newly arrested students were there, looking for their sons and daughters. They let us through the crowd who were yelling and looking for their children.We also heard that a few days earlier, Zahra Kazemi had been killed under torture.

In front of us were other prisoners. The Evin guard started insulting them. Dr. Davaran asked me "Why is he so insulting?" I said, "Don't worry he is not insulting us." As soon as a young guard saw Dr. Davaran, he said, "Father what are you doing here? Did the ministry of intelligence arrest you?" I said no, the Tehran prosecution office. He asked, "What did you guys do anyway?" I replied, We wrote a book and as a result we were arrested." He said, "Didn't you have permission?" Dr. Davaran said, "Yes, we did obtain a permit for the publication of our book, yet they arrested us anyway." He looked around and said in a funny tone, "What a screwed up country! (Ajab mamlekat khar too kharist!)

He told Davaran, "I am so sorry about this. I am truly sorry that you are here." He said to a guard, "Take them to Section 1." They wanted to handcuff us but the same guy said "no, no handcuffs." I noticed that the prison conditions had changed from 13 years ago. There was TV and AC in every room. I saw that prisoners could call their loved ones and most prison officials were acting more civilized. I attribute this change to the Khatami era as well as international pressure on the conditions of Iran's prisons.

In Evin, Siamak Pourzand, Ali Afshari, and Nasser Zarafshan greeted us. Mr. Amir Entezam had gone on a walk in the prison yard. We were so happy that we were at least in the company of our friends. We sat together and had dinner. It was good to see all of them even in the awkward situation in prison. While we were in Evin, rumor was going around that in fact a person by the name of Bakhshi had been involved in the death of Mrs.Zahra Kazemi. I don't know what his exact title was but apparently he is one of the high officials at Evin prison.

In the meantime, bail was paid and we were released. Dr. Davaran's son was worried about his father's health. He thought staying in prison even for a few days would be detrimental for his father. But Dr. Davaran got all upset. He did not want his son expressing weakness in front of the officials. "I am not a coward and will endure prison again," he siad. He did not want to seem weak, yet he was physically weak. He could not even stand up alone; he had a tumor: even for going to the bathroom he needed help.

When we had been called the second time, we were treated quite differently; they were more respectful and even the woman who was working in the ministry had read our book. She told me I read your book with interest and learned a great deal. They are sort of beginning a dialogue with us. They don't look at us with the same eye as before.

In my opinion, it is easy to destroy things but it's harder to build something. We must think of rebuilding our country, to rectify the present situation; we must be informed about all the aspects of our society. We must know about religion, about the beliefs of the people and work in a positive way to make changes. We must change Iran and our society from ground up.

We cannot put everyone in the same category. We must distinguish between those who are doing good deeds even under the present regime. Maturity is when human beings use legal means to combat ignorance and make changes that are profound. We have to advocate the idea of rebuilding our society not destroying it. This is a much more difficult task.

We must find ways to develop our economy, which is not in a healthy condition. Economic stagnation is the biggest hurdle to progress in Iran. Lack of employment, closing down of factories (for example, shoe factories have been shut down because it is cheaper to import shoes from other countries) which produce goods for the society are most vital to overcome. We must also praise and cherish those who are doing good things in Iran. Branding people and putting everyone in the same category is wrong, it is childish. We, Iranians, sometimes forget the important personalities in our country.

We should not bash them but see their contributions, even those who have made mistakes in the past. We must change our ways and means of dealing with people and problems.

The life of every prisoner who underwent torture and spent years or months in the prisons of the Islamic regime is changed forever. Only their stories must be told and their testimony read and documented. Those who read the injustices against the prisoners will have to commit themselves and the future generations of Iran, that torture will be forever annihilated, that execution will never take place again under any pretext.

Even those who have committed crimes against humanity, those who have been the torturers themselves in the Islamic regime shall face tribunals in a real court of law with real attorneys present. Their crimes must be dealt with under new laws that will safeguard their rights as citizens. It is only then and there that we can forever erase this terrible and ugly episode from the pages of the history of Iran.                          

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