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TITLETortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, by Ervand Abrahamian: Review
AUTHOR 1Mansour Farhang
NOTES Reprinted with permission from, where the review has the title "‘Spies’ Under the Persian Rug."
CONTENT Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran
Author: Ervand Abrahamian
Publisher: University of California Press, 1999. 279 pp.
Review by: Mansour Farhang

‘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."

* * *

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.

* * *

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."

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."

* * *

In the late eighties the confession/recantation television shows, publicized as voluntary interviews, lost their impact. Testimonies of survivors, publication of prison memoirs outside the country and the work of international human rights organizations had gradually exposed the truth of the interviews. This made them ineffective, even counterproductive, in demoralizing the opposition through the portrayal of political prisoners as repentant traitors. Thus the regime decided to stop broadcasting the "confessions." To be sure, repression remained intact. "Jewish and Bahai leaders continued to be shot as 'foreign spies.' Exiled politicians were increasingly assassinated. Dissidents inside Iran began to 'disappear,' die suddenly of 'natural causes' and be targeted by government propaganda." A 1994 UN report on the human rights situation estimated that there were more than 19,000 political prisoners. Moreover, Amnesty International noted that the use of torture to obtain confessions and recantations returned by the mid-nineties. The same type of "interview" was videotaped as in the past, but it was "now used solely for internal consumption--especially for trials held in camera. Like Stalinist Russia after 1939, the regime ceased broadcasting such confessions but continued to use them in closed trials. The judicial system had routinized forced confessions." Ironically, the "modern" Shah introduced the use of torture as a tool of state policy, and his successor, a "medieval" ayatollah, expanded the practice and made it more systematic. Greater accessibility to television for the general population and enhanced videotape technology enabled the "medievalists" to employ the technique more effectively than their "modernist" predecessors.

In the current Jewish spy trial in Shiraz, Iran's judicial authorities have attempted to portray the case with a nuance that could confuse the naïve or uninformed observer. Eight of the accused have "confessed" their guilt, four have pleaded innocent and one accepts responsibility for passing information to Israel but does not believe his action amounts to espionage. Three are out on bail. The trial ended May 30, and the case went to the prosecution, which is led by the trial judge. It is possible that not all the "confessors" were physically tortured, and even those who were may no longer carry the wounds of abuse. After all, the accused were not allowed to choose their lawyers and were denied visitation rights. The terror of being threatened with death or torture, particularly for members of religious minorities in a theocratic state, is sufficient to make the isolated victims willing to confess to whatever the authorities wish. As Abrahamian's interviews with the survivors or Iran's torture chambers show, we will not know exactly how the Islamic Republic's interrogators tormented the accused Jews until they are free and secure to tell their own stories.

Nine Muslims are also accused of taking part in the alleged ring. The Muslims have yet to be named publicly, but the Jewish defendants have spent more than a year in solitary confinement without access to counsel or significant contact with relatives. One of them, Shahrokh Paknahad, a rabbi, has said that his work "consisted of looking for new members [to join the spy ring] and organizing subversive activities.... We got our information through Jewish people who are close to Muslims." The rabbi has also "confessed" that he "persuaded Jewish youth to avoid military service during the Iran-Iraq war." Equally sensitive was his collection of "information from the air raid shelters" in the days of Iraqi bombing of Iranian cities, to pass on "to the Iraqi regime via Israel." To prove that he made these statements voluntarily, Paknahad concluded his televised "confessions" with a touch of Orwellian surrealism:

We can see that currently there are about 4 million Muslims living in France, but they do not have a representative in the French parliament. Whereas there are 30,000 of us, members of the Jewish minority, in Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran's Constitution has said that we should have one deputy in the Majlis. In view of the fact that only one deputy can go to the Majlis for every 250,000 people in the country, we are privileged to have a seat in the Majlis.

Under the bizarre justice system of the Islamic Republic, convictions of the accused are primarily based not on evidence but on confessions. Thus the use of torture as a tool to obtain confession is built into the very structure of the theocratic order. Therefore, it is quite logical that the presiding judge in the trial also functions as the prosecutor. In the current case of the thirteen Jews, the single court-appointed lawyer for the accused, Esmail Nasseri, revealed to the press that no confidential material was presented in the trial but then he went on to suggest, reportedly with a straight face, that "our defense is that these suspects are not spies but they have collaborated with a foreign power. Their sentence cannot exceed 2-10 years in prison." In defending another member of the group, Ramin Farzam, a 35-year-old perfumer in Teheran who has "confessed" to "indirect espionage," Nasseri said, "It can't be said he respected his country, but he was not a spy."

* * *

After nearly a decade of refraining from broadcasting confession/recantation shows, the propagandists of Iran's state-controlled television were back at work with their Jewish victims. Every day the court was in session the terrified defendants, as they were led by armed guards from the courtroom to jail, paused near the press corps gathered outside to inform the world that they were not under duress. Iran's hard-line clerics seem to have assumed that anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiment among rival factions of the regime was strong enough to make the trial popular. But the reports of international journalists and observers leave no doubt that most Iranians see the absurdity of the charade and view the "confessions" with contempt.

It is all but evident that the trial, which is closed to the press and independent observers, is being used as a tool of state policy; the daily broadcasting of the defendants' "confessions" represents an escalation of the Islamic Republic's psychological war against the country's Jewish and Bahai minorities. The trial is also part of a drive by the hard-line clerics to exacerbate tensions with Israel and the United States and frustrate President Mohammad Khatami's efforts to improve Iran's relations with the West. Abrahamian's research was completed before the spy case became public, but if he ever has the opportunity to do a second edition of his superb book, he should consider presenting the "confessions" of the accused Jews in Shiraz as an illustration of how absurd the Iranian theocracy can become in using confession as a tool of political repression.

Mansour Farhang, a professor of politics at Bennington College, writes frequently on Iran and is the author of U.S. Imperialism (South End) and other works.

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