Iran’s Evin Prison and Its Butcher, Asadollah Lajevardi

By Bahman Aghai Diba

Evin was originally a village in the suburbs of Tehran. The entire village apparently belonged to Sayed Ziaeddin Tabatabai, the first Prime Minister of Iran after the 1921 coup d’état of Reza Khan, who later assumed the throne as Reza Shah. Thus, many parts of Evin bore the name of Sayed Ziaeddin Tabatabai.

In fact, the big plot of land next to Evin Prison is called Sayed Zia’s Garden. Apparently, a few years before I went to Evin (serving a sentence there from 1988 to 1996), the personnel of Evin had asked for and received permission from Khomeini to build themselves a housing complex in Sayed Zia’s Garden. Asadollah Lajevardi, the notorious head of Evin Prison, used the services of a crook named Reza Zavareie, his friend in the Mafia known as the Coalition of Islamic Societies ( Hayate Motalefeh Eslami ) who had become the head of Iran’s Properties Registration Organization , to seize ownership of the concerned garden.

Eventually, Lajeverdi established a complex there called “garden of paradise” (Dashte behesht ). The place was turned into a big partying center for the zealots of the regime during Lajevardi’s tenure as head of the prison. High-ranking regime officials, wealthy bazaaris (the financial backbone of the mullahs), and the nouveaux riches among the clerics were using the premises for ceremonies for marriage and Hajj. They paid Lajevardi a great deal of money for the privilege.

This was one of the reasons that the personnel of Evin Prison hated Lajevardi. They were so angry at this act that many of them cursed him openly in their conversations. I personally heard one of them praying for his assassination. Lajevardi was, of course, assassinated in 1998 (by MKO members, it is said), after having left the Prisons Organization and gone back to the bazaar for a new kind of plundering.

A part of the village of Evin was devoted to Evin Prison during the time of Mohammad Reza Shah. It was intended as a place for tackling political and security prisoners. A number of political anti-Shah activists were killed, tortured or incarcerated in Evin. In fact, the notoriety of Evin Prison had its roots in the Shah’s time, though it did not see its darkest days until the atrocities after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran through the plots of the mullahs. Evin was a complex at the time of the Shah, housing a special unit of the Imperial Guard as well as a section run by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police. When people captured Evin during the revolution (1979), all sorts of rumors were circulating that Evin had secret chambers and underground wards, but no one found any such thing. Evin Prison is in the northwest of Tehran, on the street named after the prison. Before arriving at the prison gate one reaches a sharp slope near an intersection famously called the “slope of destiny” (sarashib-e sarnevesht). This always reminded me of the Bab al-Mandab (“gateway of lamentation”), the strait separating Djibouti in Africa from Yemen in Asia. It is said that captured black slaves wept when they passed the strait, because they knew it was the point of no return and they were never going to see their homeland again.

When I saw Evin, it was several years after the revolution. It had everything: solitary confinement, a public ward, closed-door rooms, and sections for the intelligence ministry, office of the Prisons Organization, office of the prosecutor general, and execution chambers.

Lajevardi and his friends had turned Evin into a self-sufficient unit. After the main gate of Evin, on the right were buildings housing the Islamic Republic’s office for the revolutionary prosecutor general. Later, when I worked in the prison premises, I came to know that the execution chamber was also next to the building of the prosecutor general. On the left were the buildings of the Islamic Revolutionary Courts, which resembled an apartment complex. The office of the Prisons Organization was further down on the left.

The office of Evin Prison was a small building on the right. People sat there waiting for the guards to send them to the different sections of the prison. They could be newcomers or those who had returned from the courts, the interrogation chambers or the office of the prosecutor general.

The first time I was in the prison office, blindfolded and accompanied by a group of others sitting there all facing the wall and with blindfolds, someone shouted: “Learning center (amuzeshgah), sanatorium (asayeshgah).” I did not move because I thought this did not apply to me. After a few seconds a guard came to me and said: “Hey, move! You are going to the sanatorium.” I found out later that they had divided the prison into these two sections: “sanatorium” really meant solitary confinement, and “learning center” was the public section of the prison.

These two units, along with the workshops of Evin, were in the foothills of the Alborz mountain range, and several minibuses carried people to and from those sections. The windows of the minibuses were painted over, but looking carefully from under the blindfold and though the small openings in the covering of windows, one could see that the premises were a big garden with enormous trees.

These arrangements of the sections had a special meaning. The prison authorities considered the prison as a place for repentance of the ignorant and the deceived. They thought people who came to prison would first have a chance to “rest” in solitary confinement and then be “re-educated” in prison.

Those who were impervious to re-education at any stage of their stay were sent to the execution chambers immediately. This was an attempt to comply with an ambiguous utterance by Khomeini written in very large letters over the main buildings of Evin: “Prison must be a university.” I conducted research about this later and found it was a misinterpretation of Khomeini’s sentences as usual. (Khomeini used the Persian language more like a foreigner than a native speaker. Unlike the usual practice of putting verbs at the end of the sentence, for instance, he used the verbs at the beginning.)

The public ward in Evin was in fact the offices and living quarters and facilities of the Shah’s guards. The converted tailoring workshop had been the swimming pool of the previous guards. The solitary confinement complex had new and old sections. It was four floors. The last floor was devoted to the mentally retarded prisoners and it was an extremely horrible section.

The lowest level was devoted to women, but the main women’s ward was somewhere close to the main offices. The office of the ministry of intelligence, called 209, was also attached to those sections. I was a constant customer of this office along with almost thirty other people.

Some of the prisoners, especially the younger MKO members, had turned into prison trustees and were called tawwabs (“penitents”). They treated the others very badly. I think the reason was that by the time we reached Evin, a great number of the MKO members had been killed and the remaining ones felt they had to prove their “repentance.”

Lajevardi was one of the persons that had a special place in hell. He was one of the most hated men that I came to know in my life. He was a corrupt, hypocritical, and violent creature. The ugliness of his face—a personification of Satan in my mind—added to his repulsive personality. When I entered Evin Prison, he was already the Head of Prisons Organization of Iran. Lajevardi belonged to the Coalition of Islamic Groups (Hay’at-e Motalefeh Eslami), the religious terrorist group that had assassinated Hassanali Mansour, the PM of the Shah, and was related to the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab countries through a few traitors to the Iranian nation. The Coalition of Islamic Groups still plays a Mafiosi role in the government and politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and some of its important figures are: Asgaroladi, Khamenei (the so-called Supreme Leader), Ayatollah Yazdi, then the head of Judiciary but virtually Lajevardi’s puppet, and Zavareie (d. 2005), the head of the Office for Property Registration that helped Lajevardi in his corrupt activities.

Lajevardi spent a great deal of time in Evin. He was instrumental in all the killings there after the so-called revolution. He worked there as interrogator, torturer, executioner, head of branch, head of prison and, finally, head of Prisons Organization, which was inside Evin. He considered Evin his child.

Other than a few persons who were isolated, he had gathered a bunch of idiots to run Evin. Anyone who began to suspect corruption within the management of the prison was sacked right away. Some were sent to the cells of Evin as soon as they raised a protest. Lajevardi was very fond of the landscape in Evin. For him the beauty of Evin as a garden was very important, even more important than the prisoners and prison staff. For the same reason both groups hated him.

Another thing that made Lajevardi very disgusting was his deep hypocrisy. He used to punish the prisons and prison personnel for trivial things while he and his family were plundering in the millions from the public treasury. Once he inflicted severe punishment on a person employee because he washed his car inside Evin with public water. Evin has great workshops. In the tailoring workshop alone, more than a thousand industrial sewing machines were working several shifts.

Lajevardi confiscated what these workshops produced and hauled it away in a big trailer. A prisoner who was a friend of mine managed the accounting for the tailoring workshop. He told me personally how he had to alter names and cook the books to conceal the stealing. At that time Lajevardi’s son-in-law and father-in-law both were working in the management of the workshop. Later, when the thieves reached a point of conflict over the division of the spoils, Lajevardi put some of his family in prison for corruption. They had been working there for more than fifteen years and Lajevardi claimed he did not know the scope of corruption.

Lajevardi was also a symbol of mismanagement in the Islamic Republic of Iran. He had been a petty tradesman in bazaar, and when he had reached high places in the system he was still thinking of management in terms of running a small bazaar stall (hojreh). Combined with mismanagement was a general sickness of nature that he shared with other managers in the Islamic Republic at all levels, from the head of sweepers in a small region all the way up to the Supreme Leader. This sickness of mind derives from a deep conviction that God has given a special and unique talent and power of decision-making to a select few and whatever comes to their miserable minds is the best thing that can be done.

This kind of thinking resulted in untold disasters in Evin and other prisons in Iran during the tenure of Lajevardi. Among other things, Lajevardi arbitrarily and illegally changed regulations and procedures in prison management, and he mixed prisoners of various types to conceal political prisoners.

The changing of the prison bylaws (ayin-nameh zendanha) was egregiously illegal. It made his task easier that the laws and regulations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, starting with the Constitution and going down to ordinary statutes, are replete with mistakes, points of injustice, contraventions of Islamic jurisprudence, violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even contrary to common sense. The new prison bylaws that Lajevardi cooked up contradicted even to the miserable laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Lajevardi had ordered Ayatollah Yazdi, his protégé and scarecrow in the judiciary of Iran for many years, to sign the new prison bylaws without so much as reading a single line. Bylaws clearly should go through a process to become enforceable. Usually, such important bylaws must go through the appropriate parliamentary committees and come to a full vote on the floor of the parliament, then go through the government apparatus like the council of ministers, and so on. The new prison bylaws never went through those steps; only the chief of the Judiciary put his signature to them, which in no way invests them with legal authority.

Other problems that I remember with the new bylaws are as follows:

1. In the classification of prisoners there was no distinction between criminal and political prisoners.

2. Prisoners that were called “spies” and “criminals against the security of the country” (which encompassed all non-ordinary criminals) were deprived of almost all advantages in prison.

3. According to new articles in the bylaws, a prisoner who learned a part of the Koran by heart became eligible for a few days’ furlough. This was a ridiculous chapter in prison life. Many of the intellectual prisoners who refused were denied privileges, while hard-core criminals who learned small parts of the Koran without knowing what it meant could spend time outside prison. Numerous reports indicated that these furloughed prisoners stole cars right within the prison neighborhood, raped women, drank heavily and engaged in disorderly conduct, and even committed murder.

4. Limiting the power of judges over the prisoners as opposed to the powers of prison officials. This may look like an innocent provision, deceptively so. For many years, starting with the first days of the revolution, the judges of the Revolutionary Courts handed out sentences to their victims (political and ideological prisoners) with no clear criteria. They had sent many to their deaths, and those who were not killed were supposed to be ready for some kind of rehabilitation. Therefore, the judges granted furloughs, or even released the prisoners when they were convinced that they were no longer a threat to the regime. Contrary to that, if someone the judges considered a threat to the regime had served out the full prison term, they refused to release him or her. Now, Lajevardi had changed the prison regulations to divest judges of decision-making in cases where they knew that the sentence was meant to be open-ended and conditioned on the behavior of the prisoner. A judge had given a 20-year sentence to someone who may have deserved a six-month prison according to ordinary laws, and now after two years he was convinced that the prisoner should go home, but Lajevardi and his bylaws would not allow it. The duration of furloughs for the prisoners was very limited, because Lajevardi wanted to keep people in prison and use them as slaves in the prison workshops, from which he derived considerable wealth. Political prisoners and prisoners of conscience—those for whom prison furloughs were actually devised—were denied their freedom entirely.

Pishva. This was the name given to a miserable, illiterate man. Lajevardi quickly discovered his violent character and wide-scale idiocy. He had become the head of Evin Prison during the time that I was in a cell there. The appointment of Pishva was ridiculous, because everybody knew that Lajevardi would not give up his dear child, Evin Prison. Pishva’s real name was Karbalai, but most called him Hitler. Almost all the personnel of Evin and the revolutionary courts had pseudonyms, while prisoners and their families had given them special names. For instance, the man that prison officials called Haj Hussein was known to the prison population as Hussein the “honorless” (bi-namus). Prisoners referred to another character as “Hassan Zapata,” because he had Mexican features.

Lajevardi devised a plan for Evin Prison that cost him his job, and eventually his life. To bolster the claim that Evin did not contain political prisoners, he opened the prison to dangerous criminals. The staff and administration of Evin were accustomed to political prisoners and did not know the ways of felons. The newcomers had no fear of the prison guards, who were ill-equipped to deal with them. These dangerous murderers, thieves or prostitutes assumed the most pious appearances, denying the guards the tool of branding them as irreligious or regime opponents. The customary threats Evin guards had used against political prisoners (whereby those that did not “behave” could travel the distance between life and death very quickly) had little effect on these dangerous criminals. Unlike the political prisoners who had almost never attempted an escape, the hardened felons made numerous attempts, succeeding in some cases. Some of them threatened the family of the guards out of the prison. During my time in Evin, I was aware of at least two cases where the prisoners had brazenly robbed the house of the head of the public section and other Evin officials. These dangerous prisoners were not processed by revolutionary courts, which did not know or follow the intricacies of the legal system. As a result, these felons did not fear the lawlessness of these courts. Some of them were rich and could buy the services of low-level workers who served as guards in the prison. Unlike the political prisoners, who showed no interest in corrupt actions, the criminals took advantage of the ignorance and incompetence of the Evin staff to engage in corruption within jail.

This is a piece from my recent book (Bahman Aghai Diba, Problems of the Islamic Republic of Iran: How not to govern a country, published in the USA by CreateSpace, June 2011)

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