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'Spies' Under the Persian Rug | The Nation

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'Spies' Under the Persian Rug

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The time finally came for the Iranian revolution to devour its children. In June 1981, the attempt of the Mojahedin, an Islamist-Marxist party, to overthrow the regime by force "set off waves of repression unprecedented in Iranian history." Within six months of the failure of the Mojahedin uprising, Tortured Confessions reports, the Revolutionary Tribunals executed 2,665 political prisoners--seven times the number of royalists killed in the previous sixteen months. The executions totaled 7,943 by June 1985. Most of these victims belonged to the Mojahedin and the rest to a number of Marxist, Maoist, socialist and liberal groups. As Abrahamian's meticulous research reveals, the overwhelming majority of those executed in the eighties were high school and college students or recent high school and college graduates. Women constituted some 12 percent of the victims. In her deeply moving and revealing prison memoirs, Shahrnush Parsipour, a prominent novelist who was imprisoned for four and a half years for carrying "subversive literature" in her car, estimated that "in late 1981 the average age of her ward mates was nineteen and a half. She also estimates that 80 percent were high school pupils, 15 percent were university students."

About the Author

Mansour Farhang
Mansour Farhang, a professor of politics at Bennington College, writes frequently on Iran and is the author of U.S....

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The prosecutor of Teheran in the postrevolutionary period, Assadollah Ladjevardi, was a famous prisoner at Evin in the seventies. The first revolutionary warden of Evin, Mohammad Kachouyi, was also an inmate during the Shah's rule. Both men were appointed to their position by Ayatollah Khomeini. When Kachouyi was assassinated in 1981, Khomeini asked Ladjevardi to replace him as the warden of Evin while keeping his job as Teheran's prosecutor. Soon after, Ladjevardi made Evin his family residence and became notorious as the "Butcher of Evin." He was assassinated in 1998. In the panic days of 1981 and the summary execution of young demonstrators, the Islamic rulers were desperate to get information about the identities and whereabouts of those who posed a threat to them. Thus it became a central objective of the state to obtain confessions and recantations from political prisoners. It was also at this point that the idea of converting the political prisoners, by whatever means, to "true Islam" appealed to the authorities. As one former prisoner explained, "The regime had one overriding aim from the moment it arrested us. It was to force us to reject our beliefs and show that its lashes were stronger than our ideals." Another prisoner, a survivor of both pre- and postrevolutionary incarceration, suggests that "the new wardens were determined to extract recantations because they themselves in the 1970's had submitted to the Shah their own 'dishonorable letters of regret.'"

Ta'zir, or discretionary punishment, is a feature in Islamic law. In 1980 the first Parliament of the Islamic Republic codified this provision of Islamic law by passing a bill giving judges permission to mete out seventy-four lashes to those who, among other things, kiss illicitly, fail to dress properly or lie to the authorities. As Abrahamian observes, "Clerical interrogators can give indefinite series of seventy-four lashings until they obtain 'honest answers.'" Therefore, if answers "are not satisfactory, they can be lawfully whipped for 'lying.' In theory, this punishment should come after a proper law court has found them guilty of perjury. But the line between interrogation and trial is hazy as the same clerics wear three different turbans--prosecutor, judge, and interrogator. According to the new law, interrogators with proper theological credentials are entitled to lash until the guilty 'confess the truth.'"

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic forbids torture and coerced confession, but ta'zir law allows both physical punishment and voluntary confession. As Abrahamian notes, "The new regime has often told UN delegations that ta'zir should not be equated with torture because it is sanctioned by the sharia and administered by qualified magistrates." Ladjevardi went so far as "to boast that the Islamic Republic is the very first state in history to have converted prisons into universities." He had not been informed, Abrahamian remarks, "that on the eve of the Moscow trials, Vyshinsky, Stalin's chief prosecutor, had published with much fanfare a scholarly treatise entitled From Prisons to Educational Institutions."

* * *

At the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) Ayatollah Khomeini issued a secret religious decree setting up special commissions with instructions to execute all political prisoners who were not clearly repentant. These victims were largely Mojaheds, categorized as moharebs (those who war against God), and leftists, labeled as mortads (apostates from Islam). The commissions questioned prisoners throughout the country to decide which ones should receive the death penalty. The proceedings began with assurances to the prisoners that the purpose of the undertaking was to initiate a general amnesty. Then the commission members asked the prisoners about "their organizational affiliation. If they replied 'Mojahedin,' the questioning ended there. If they replied 'monafeqin' (hypocrites), the commission continued with such questions as 'Are you willing to denounce former colleagues?' 'Are you willing to help us hunt them down?' 'Will you identify phony repenters?' 'Will you go to the war front and walk through enemy minefields?'" In most cases, the prisoners were blindfolded throughout the proceedings. The leftists were asked, "Are you a Muslim? Do you believe in God? Is the Holy Koran the word of God? Will you publicly recant historical materialism? Do you pray and read the Holy Koran?"

These questions bewildered the prisoners because they had never been raised before in Iranian courts. As one leftist inmate put it, "In previous years, they wanted us to confess to spying. In 1988, they wanted us to convert to Islam." The inquisition of the special commissions produced unprecedented violence in Iranian history. "It even outdid," notes Abrahamian, "the 1979 reign of terror. The curtain of secrecy, however, was so effective that no Western journalist heard of it and no Western academic discussed it." Indeed, Abrahamian's work is the only thorough report published on the mass executions of 1988. Former prisoners and opposition groups put the death toll between 5,000 and 6,000. Amnesty International estimates the total to be more than 2,500, the vast majority "'prisoners of conscience' as they had not been charged with actual deeds or plans of deeds against the state." Abrahamian provides an insightful portrayal of how and why medieval inquisition reappeared in modern Iran. Evidence leads him to conclude that the horrors of 1988 were "the product, not of fearful panic, but of calculated planning."

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