A Grim Journey to an Exalted Destination

Yousef Azizi:
Y AziziPosted June 25th, 2009 by English PEN staff & filed under Campaigns.
The nations of Iran have taken a great journey over more than a century – precisely, since the constitutional revolution in Iran (1906-1908). This journey has aimed for liberty, democracy, and social justice. In this effect, the years of my life, especially the last four of them, which I have spent fighting for these ideals, are a very small portion of this process, burdened with difficulties and sacrifices.

Iranian intellectuals and specifically writers and journalists are faced with daily prosecution and pressures due to their enlightening thoughts and work in opposition to the ruling totalitarian system.

I feel that my land is caged inside steel fences, and I, as a writer, try to bring down these wicked fences and destroy the barriers placed between my readers and me. These fences appear as markers of the impossible, but in reality it is very possible to penetrate and break them, regardless of how thick they seem.

There are numerous charges against me which are considered crimes in the totalitarian vernacular of the Iranian regime. The first charge is my origin, which is belonging to the Arab ethnic minority of Iran who form approximately 8 percent of the total Iranian population. The second charge is my job – a journalist. The third is my hobby, by which I mean writing and translation; and the fourth, my opinions, which are in the form of peaceful opposition and criticism of the system’s practices.

I started my literary and political life when I was a youth. Working against the former Iranian regime for unconditional freedom of speech, I was imprisoned due my opposition to Shah’s dictatorship.

After the 1979 revolution in Iran, I continued my activities, criticizing the new governing group after they betrayed the nations of Iran and their ambitions for freedom, democracy, and social justice.

I was also arrested in 1981 due to my political activities, after which I was frequently summoned by the Iranian intelligence service for additional interrogation. However, what happened to me on April 2005 was completely different from what went on previously.

The raid on my house

On April 2005, a letter bearing the signature of Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the head of former president Mohammad Khatami’s, office, was leaked. This letter was dated 1998, which was the second year of Khatami’s first term. It emphasized the necessity of altering the demographic distribution in the Al-Ahwaz region of Iran (Khuzestan), in order to turn the Arab majority to a minority in the region within ten years.

On April 15, 2005, Ahwazi Arabs participated in peaceful demonstrations condemning the contents of the letter. The Iranian authorities met these demonstrations with steel and fire, despite the peaceful nature of the demonstrations. Tens of civilians were murdered by the security agents, and hundreds more arrested.

Although I was living in Tehran at the time, these events affected me as a writer and an Arab Iranian intellectual, causing me to voice my objection to the murder of innocent demonstrators, and I did this through speeches and interviews with the international media.

My freedom of speech, however, did not last long. On Monday, April 25th of that year I gave a speech at the Association for Defending Human Rights, in Tehran, which is chaired by the Noble Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. My speech criticized the regime’s conduct in brutally oppressing the demonstrations in Ahwaz and other cities in the region. An hour after I returned home, eight armed agents from the secret service entered my house, and searched it for two and a half hours, videotaping every corner of my home. Consequently, I was arrested, and my computer’s hard drive, my archives of Arabic and Persian newspaper articles, and my own unpublished articles, stories, and poetry drafts were taken in nine big bags. They also removed 32 of videotapes containing private family material.

From Evin to an unknown prison

They brought me first to Evin prison in the north of Tehran, where I was put, after my watch, my shoes, and most of my clothes were removed, in division 209, which belongs to the Ministry of Intelligence.

I did not stay in this prison long since I was moved at dawn – around four o’clock in the morning – the following day, without being told the next destination. They transferred me to Tehran airport, from which I was flown to Ahwaz. As soon as we arrived at Ahwaz airport, a car belonging to the secret service was waiting for us, and I was securely blindfolded so that I could not see the direction in which we were heading. Up until the day I was released from my solitary cell, sixty-five days later, I did not have the slightest clue regarding my whereabouts.

After entering the prison’s building, and taking advantage of the guards’ negligence, I slightly raised my blindfold and could see cells on the right and the left of the hallway. Later, it became known to me that about sixteen of these cells were used as interrogation rooms, or break rooms for the guards.

I was left in a 24 square meter cell containing a washroom and a bathroom, in solitary confinement. My watch, my belt, my eyeglasses (since they were made of metal), and all my clothing were taken from me, and I was outfitted in the prison’s uniform. Moreover, I was denied access to fresh air, newspapers, radio, television, or books, although this was against Iranian law.

In the evening of the first day, I was taken, along with two others arrested in Ahwaz, whom I did not know, to the police station. At first, I believed we were being taken the city of Khafajiya (Soosangerd). This made me consider throwing myself under a car since I knew the severity of their methods, and especially because it is my hometown and they all know me very well. Fortunately, we did not leave Ahwaz, and instead, returned to the prison.

Hour after hour, I searched the walls of my lonely cell, examining what was scribbled on them. I found broken lines marking the passage of days in captivity, poems, and words of wisdom carved by prisoners who had spent lengthy periods of time in there. One of these engravings was the most significant in raising my spirits. It read, in Ahwazi Arabic, “La tihchi tara tibchi,” which translates in English as, “Don’t talk because you will cry,” meaning, you should not talk or confess to anything, or else you will regret it.

On the first night in Ahwaz, an interrogator from the Ministry of Intelligence sent from Tehran blindfolded and questioned me from ten o’clock pm until one hour after midnight.

The questioning period was difficult and provoking, and was conducted by one of the companions of the former ill-reputed Intelligence Deputy Minister, Saeed Emami. He used all types of threats, demanding that I confess to what he described as forging the letter from the former president’s office, and to being responsible for organizing the demonstrations that followed it in Ahwaz. Of course, a confession to such things would lead to an execution sentence, or at least long prison terms. Therefore, I was in a psychological state no one would envy. The interrogator was a professional and asked specific, detailed questions which put even more pressure on me, despite the fact that I have had past experiences with the method of both former regime’s secret service, known as SAVAK, and the current Islamic Republic of Iran’s Intelligence agents.

There was a conflict in my mind, not knowing whether to confess to things I had not done just to put an end to the pressure and the horrible threats, or to endure and tell the truth only. It was a hard psychological conflict, dividing my mind into two struggling camps. At last, the second camp championed, leaving the interrogator in failure. I did know, from my previous experience with the secret service and what I had heard from other prisoner of conscience, that the “first questioning period” is the one that crucially determines the rest of the investigation, where if the detainee succumbs to the interrogator’s pressure at that time, he will rarely be able to withstand further questioning. But, if he endures the initial questioning, the following pressure and interrogations will fail, and that was my case.

In that respect, I recall some of their threats, such as, “We will hang you where the protests took place, in Dayera neighborhood, if you don’t cooperate with us,” or, “You must confess tonight whatever the cost; I will take your confessions, even if I knew that the U.S. President, George Bush, would rage a war on Iran and burn Al-Ahwaz region for your sake.” I laughed at him in my head, and told him, “I don’t like George Bush, and I don’t count on him, anyway. You should know my ideals better.”

Four days into my detention, my wife was given permission to call me, which was the first and only time that was allowed. After that, the judge in charge of the investigation came to me, to convince me to do what his inferiors failed to achieve, which was to confess to things I had not done. Since my answer had not changed, he ordered my transfer to a smaller cell as a punishment for the lack of cooperation on my side, and my refusal to sign a confession dictated by my jailers. I should add that one of the reasons behind my ability to endure all the pressure was what my wife told me, about the great support provided and the vast protests by the writers and journalists inside Iran, the human rights organizations, Iranian opposition, and the media abroad.

After the transfer, another high ranking, skillful agent from the Ahwaz branch of the Intelligence Service took over my file. A representative from the Revolutionary Court of Tehran also interrogated me for many hours on one of the first days of detention. About a month later, the chief of the Legal Department of the Ministry of Intelligence in Tehran, along with a university lecturer, came to pay me a visit. I believe the lecturer taught in the Faculty of Intelligence in Ahwaz, or perhaps at some other universities as well. At any rate, they came with a different kind of discussion which was unlike the provoking usual routine. They focused on theoretical and political issues, and discussed matters considering non-Persian ethnicities in Iran, referring to some of my articles and lectures in Iranian universities, where they criticized my stance on the topic.

In a small cell

Oh my Lord, what can I do in a cell that is three metres in length and 2 metres in width? What few belongings I had took up a metre of my cell’s width. I used the other metre to walk along the cell, where I walked for six to seven hours, which would be about twenty kilometres a day, to digest the food and pass the slow moving time, weighed heavily by the absence of my watch, or any kind of communication device, or media. Sometimes, I would try to listen to the guard’s radio, which was several metres away from my cell, and get some of the news.

Despite all the time I spent sleeping and walking, I still had plenty of extra time. Thus, I asked the guards for some books, but they gave me none. They would not even give me the Quran which is the holy book of Islam. It was available in great numbers in Evin prison, yet in Ahwaz there were none. The reason is that most prisoners in Ahwaz are Arabs and can read and understand the Arabic of the Quran, while the Persians in Tehran generally do not. After much persistence, they finally gave me a copy of the Quran, though they would not return my eye-glasses to me, reasoning that they were made of metal, and I could use them to commit suicide. Luckily, the print was large, and I could read the text. However, the Quran increased the psychological pressure on me in that small cell since it was full of vivid images of hell and severe punishment that would bring horror to any heart, especially to one who is facing the system’s hell alone. After I read the Quran in whole two or three times, I began to focus on the more poetic parts, the parts that are about love and other similar topics, and contain literary method, and important story telling devices. I, also, wrote some comments about the Quran’s suras with a pencil I took from the interrogator’s room, although all these writings were taken away from me later.

Another thing that one feels in that horrifying loneliness is the need for communicating with other human beings. On one hand, I felt, due to the complete isolation, an intense desire to talk to anyone, even if it was my interrogator and torturer. I would feel some kind of happiness when I was called for interrogation, just because I was going to see a human being and talk to him, for hours at a time. Of course, his purpose was to extract confessions from me, whether truth or lie, for them to be used at the court run by the Intelligence Service to convict me. On the other hand, I was extremely irritated by the interrogator’s long, nerve-wracking questions that would go on for hours during the day and, sometimes, the night; questions that were laced with threats of beating, execution, and long-term imprisonment. It is important to mention, however, that despite the ongoing threats I was not physically tortured. Yet, I was subject to intensive psychological torture, of which I informed the court, though no note of it was made when my sentence was issued. While I was spared the physical abuse, other Ahwazi Arab prisoners have told me of their exposure to beating, whipping, and other types of physical torture during imprisonment and interrogrations.

In spite of having all the time in the world during the day, the interrogators frequently choose to question their prisoners after midnight. As a result, I was once questioned for seven straight hours, starting at one after midnight and ending at eight o’clock in the morning.

Likewise, the sound of the small trolley carrying the food through the hallway and to the prisoners, was comparable to the jolliest of all music in that extreme loneliness. Such is the music where the only way to know the time is by means of the shadows casted by a narrow ray of light coming from the small window high on the wall.

After approximately a month, I was allowed a meeting with my attorney, Mr. Saleh Nikbakht, who is an old friend of mine, and also with two of my brothers, my sister, and some of their children. That is when I leaked the news of my hunger strike. By going on strike, I was protesting the jailers’ prohibition of my wife and daughter to come to visit me, as well as my indefinite detention.

Back to the larger cell

A month and half into my imprisonment, I was moved back to the larger cell, without being told the reason. At that time, in spite of all their threats and promises, I refused to meet with the president, Muhammad Khatami, to offer my apologies for what they alleged was my role in April 2005 events in Ahwaz, and in forging and distributing Abtahi’s letter. I also refused to give in to their efforts to pressure me into a televised confession and statement of remorse.

It seems that the full media coverage, as well as human rights organizations, journalists, and intellectuals’ demands both outside and inside Iran is what led to their decision to transfer me to the larger cell, and, finally, release me.

This coincided with the most extreme days of summer, in which the temperature could rise to 55 to 60 degrees Celsius; a time when lizards and cockroaches run around in hopes of finding a refuge from the sun. And I could see those lizards behind the glass window, and they looked like small crocodiles. Furthermore, no matter how hard I tried to seal the openings, I could not stop these lizards from entering the cell. That is when I asked the guards to use pesticides to eliminate their presence. Instead, and upon their realization of my sensitivity towards lizards, they started to put some of them in my mattress which was on the ground at all times.

A few weeks before my release, I came to know from one of the Arab guards that every prisoner is entitled to half an hour of fresh air in the yard. Therefore, I started demanding to be granted this legal right. Hence, they allowed me, once every two or three days, to take advantage of the fresh air in the small yard of the prison, surrounded by high walls.

One of these days, I requested that the guard allow me to stay in the yard for an hour, instead of half, in order for me to run and stretch and so forth. He agreed immediately. That day, they let me in the yard at half past ten in the morning; the hour passed, but the guard never opened the thick iron door that provided an entrance to the building. So, I began knocking on the door with all my strength that was drying under the boiling sun. Despite all my calls for help, cries, and hitting on the door no one opened the door. The temperature was close to sixty degrees and after two hours I started to feel tired, dizzy, thirsty, and hungry. At two o’clock, which the time for distribution of lunch, the prison ward opened the door, alleging that the guard had left the building, taking the door key with him. I asked, nonetheless, how on earth there only was one key to that door. To tell the truth, I saw death in front of my eyes, and I believe, by doing this, they were trying to hurt me, or even kill me if possible.

At the end of this anecdote, it is to be noted that the Iranian Intelligence Service uses the method of utterly isolating the prisoner from his surrounding and environment, which is achieved by depriving him from all sorts of communication, media, time, and so forth. This method aims at draining the prisoner’s thoughts out his mind, and injecting it with their own ideas. It is successful on some of the inexperienced who are not familiar with these malignant methods.

After I was released, the investigations continued. For three years, I was frequently summoned to the revolutionary deputyship, and then the revolutionary court of Tehran, for interrogations. Finally, the revolutionary court sentenced me to five years in prison; a sentence which was approved by the court of appeal a few month ago. This sentence was solely the result of my exercising my right to freedom of speech, which I practiced to criticize the Iranian regime’s violent repression of the peaceful demonstrations in Ahwaz five years ago.

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