'Spies' Under the Persian Rug
Early in the morning on Tuesday, May 2, as I opened my apartment door to pick up the New York Times, I was struck by a large front-page picture of a man in Iranian prison uniform. The caption below the picture identified the prisoner as "Hamid Tefileen, a shoe salesman who is one of thirteen Jewish men accused of spying for Israel." The picture accompanied an article that conveyed the claim of Iran's judicial authorities that Tefileen had "confessed" to his crime. The tormented face of the prisoner reminded me of numerous such pictures I have seen in the Iranian press over the past thirty years, none of which found their way to the pages of the Times or other newspapers of record.
International human rights organizations are pleased that at long last the Western mass media have chosen to expose the nature of the "confessions" used as evidence in Iran's judicial system. Yet an elegantly written and fully documented book on the history of prisons, torture, confession and public recantation in modern Iran is available to tell us that, too. The writer, Ervand Abrahamian, is a professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York, and his handful of books on twentieth-century Iran constitute an indispensable source of information, insight and analysis for scholars and general readers as well. Abrahamian's latest book provides a context in which the Kafkaesque and Orwellian character of the "confessions" obtained in the trial of the Jews in Shiraz can be adequately comprehended.
Torture as a tool of government policy was banned in Iran when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi launched his modernization drive in the early sixties. Abrahamian dates the return of torture to Iran's judicial process to 1971 and notes that this development ran counter to Michel Foucault's view that societies tend to replace physical with nonphysical punishment as they move from tradition to modernity. This was the time when a new generation of leftist Iranians, having witnessed the decimation of nonviolent dissidents, chose the path of armed rebellion against the Pahlavi monarchy. As this struggle gained momentum and the guerrillas, both Marxists and Muslims, became the young generation's folk heroes, the Shah's regime expanded the SAVAK (Iran's security organization before the 1979 revolution) and modernized the prisons to handle the new breed of activist dissident. Evin, Iran's Bastille, was originally built to house 320 inmates with twenty solitary cells. By the late seventies it had been expanded to accommodate 1,500 inmates with 100 solitary cells. Six interrogation chambers were arranged in the prison basement, and SAVAK was given "a loose leash to torture suspected guerrillas" to obtain information and confessions. Under these circumstances, "torture increased dramatically--in scope, intensity, variety, and sophistication."
The Shah's regime sent some of its interrogators abroad for "'scientific' training to prevent unwanted deaths." As Abrahamian writes:
Brute force was supplemented with the bastinado; sleep deprivation; extensive solitary confinement; glaring searchlights; standing in one place for hours on end; nail extractions; snakes (favored for use with women); electrical shocks with cattle prods, often into the rectum; cigarette burns; sitting on hot grills; acid dripped into nostrils; near-drownings; mock executions; and an electric chair with a large metal mask to muffle screams while amplifying them for the victim. This latter contraption was dubbed the Apollo--an allusion to the American space capsules. Prisoners were also humiliated by being raped, urinated on, and forced to stand naked.
Abrahamian illustrates how the use of recantation by well-known political prisoners came to complicate the plight of the victims. Those who divulged information or recanted rarely said anything about what had actually happened to them. To do so would have meant "admitting" submission, which, in turn, meant losing self-respect and public reputation. For in "this age of revolutionary martyrdom, true heroes were supposed to die rather than submit and compromise their beliefs." Abrahamian has interviewed a number of such people, and his findings show the terrifying reality of what the victims had to go through both before and after their release from prison. Ghulam-Hossein Sa'edi, a gifted playwright and psychiatrist, was one prominent intellectual to be tortured into recanting. He appeared on television in 1975 "to take the political opposition to task for 'exploiting' his works, serving as 'tools of foreign powers,' misunderstanding the country's culture, and refusing to credit the glorious achievements of the Shah-People's revolution." In a 1984 interview in Paris Sa'edi "revealed for the first time how he had been kidnapped, taken to Evin, and subjected to days of 'nightmarish tortures'--all for the purpose of extracting an 'interview.' The interrogator admitted that he wanted Sa'edi to be publicly humiliated because mere imprisonment would make him into a public hero--a mistake made with previous writers."
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The 1978-79 revolution promised to end Iran's lawlessness and political repression, but only days after the fall of the Shah a new group of Iranians began to suffer violent treatment at the hands of the new rulers. The jailers and the jailed had switched positions, and the new men of power, intoxicated with self-righteousness, had no need for information or recantation from their former oppressors. Thus for the first twenty-eight months of their rule the Islamic authorities abandoned the practice of interrogation and replaced it with execution of political prisoners without asking too many questions. The hurriedly established Revolutionary Tribunals executed 757 people for "sowing corruption on earth." Most of the victims were prominent royalists and SAVAK officials, but they also included thirty-five Bahais and a leading Jewish businessman. The Islamic judges, all appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini,
limited trials to brief hours, sometimes minutes; found defendants guilty on the basis of "popular repute"; and dismissed the concept of defense attorney as a "Western absurdity." They also explained that the term "sowing corruption on earth" covered a host of sins--"insulting Islam and the clergy," "opposing the Islamic Revolution," "supporting the Pahlavis," and "undermining Iran's independence...." No time was wasted between trial and execution. Most executions were by firing squad. The first took place on the roof of a girls' school where Khomeini had taken up residence on his arrival in Tehran.
Revenge ruled the day, and only the provisional Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, and a number of liberal politicians and intellectuals objected to the killings and violations of law. Most Marxist and Islamist groups called for more and speedier execution of former officials.