The world gasped in horror when it learnt of the execution of an innocent 22-year-old woman, Delara Darabi, on May 1. But Iranians have had to live with these sorts of horrors on an almost day-to-day basis. When I visited Iran, I heard hushed stories of men being thrown in prison for walking alongside a woman who was not a blood relative.
Such is the level of repression that police will have a (hopefully) impossible task in containing the pent-up anger of tens of millions of people. When U.S.-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was recently released from an eight year sentence for spying, it was viewed as a possible overture to an improved relationship with the U.S.
No one seriously believed it was the sign of a more humane penal system because the fact remains that countless others equally deserving of freedom continue to be held in Iran’s macabre prisons. I daresay they will soon overflow with Mousavi supporters, and they will join those who took part in the Revolution of 1979.
The following interview is with an ex-soldier who served at Evin Prison, which is where Delara Darabi and Roxana Saberi were held. It is a perfect illustration as to why the people of Iran are fighting against this dictatorial rule. Evin is Iran’s most notorious prison and it operates in such secrecy that it is impossible to know how many languish inside its walls, and how many it has executed.
The interviewee, who must remain anonymous for his own safety, fled Iran two months ago and lives in limbo while he waits for the UN to process his application for refugee status. He is a Christian and his conversion from Islam is punishable by death in Iran. His conversion, if discovered, would have quickly switched his role from prison guard to prisoner.
JM: How did you come to work in Evin Prison?
D: Well I was really against military service of itself but it is compulsory in Iran. And if I had tried to avoid it on some grounds such as physical unfitness I wouldn’t be given a passport. And without a passport I couldn’t leave Iran.
After military training, I was expecting to be sent to the police force and I was prepared for that. But I was posted to Evin prison for 20 months in 2007. I bought some medication for depression to take with me.
JM: What were your duties there?
D: Like all the other soldiers, I was responsible for preventing prisoners from escaping and taking them from their cells to their court appearance.
Soldiers also have duties during executions.
JM: What were the conditions like?
D: Evin prison is an awful place, but in comparison to other prisons in Iran it is not the worst. The worst is Rajai-Shahr Prison in Karaj. On my first day the commander told us to be really careful about touching prisoners – he said they might make us sick.
The most common illnesses are hepatitis, tetanus and meningitis. Each day many prisoners are infected with HIV virus because they use just one syringe and pass it to each other.
The prisons in Iran are so different from what I have seen on American TV shows. The prisoners at Evin don’t get enough fresh air – just half an hour a day. At 8pm the lights are turned off, and at 5am they go back on. But the grounds of Evin Prison do have nice, tall trees… And the prison’s yard is clean enough. But the cells are not.
Evin Prison is divided into several sections within different buildings.
JM: What do you know about the women’s section?
I did not work there but I find the women’s section really sad. It is restricted and it has huge walls inside the prison. Most of the women in Evin are prostitutes or they were caught doing something “wrong” by Islam.
I believe that many of the women who had been charged with taking part in the filming of a pornographic or erotics film had done so against their will. If they were convicted they were executed.
JM: What do you know about the other prisoners?
D: Evin is the best prison for a soldier to work, because it mostly has chic criminals. This is what the soldiers call the financial criminals. But actually most of the prisoners in Evin aren’t even criminals. There are a lot of men who cannot pay money back to their wife when they get a divorce as is the custom in Iran. So these men stay in prison for four to six months. Sometimes they pay the money in instalments and they are released. There are also the very rich people who are in debt. And there are the Bahai’s, the drug dealers, some convicted murderers, and those found guilty of ‘spying’.
JM: What about the political prisoners, the dissidents?
Political prisoners are in Section 12. Soldiers in Evin prison are not allowed to meet those prisoners. This is two floors underground and the older soldiers told me that if I even tried to look inside I would be punished. Section 12 has its own special guards. These guards have beards and they don’t wear a uniform. Once I saw a man being led towards Section 12. He was blindfolded.
I am sure they did not keep Roxana Saberi in Section 12 because she has a foreign passport.
JM: Did you see any executions?
D: I did something extreme which made it possible for me to leave Evin prison after a short time – so I did not witness an execution.
But I have so many friends from training who did. Five days after I left, eight people were executed in one morning. Executions take place around dawn, just as many soldiers arrive to start their day’s work. My friend told me that one morning when he arrived, there were many people at the entrance. They were shouting and crying. He went inside the grounds and he saw eight bodies hanging in the air.
Any soldier who helps with the execution is rewarded with two days holiday. There is so much competition to do this that the junior soldiers never get to do it. If, for example, eight people executed, six or seven soldiers are required for duties. The chair has to be set up, and the rope has to be fastened around the neck, and someone must pull the chair. And someone has to put the dead body in the bag.
You cannot imagine how I felt as I watched the soldiers being eager to do these things.
JM: How did working in Evin Prison affect you psychologically?
D: I found it to be a mentally sick place and I could not tolerate being there. And after I left, I had very bad dreams every night for two months. Of course I was dreaming that I was still there. Now I am okay.