Torture, Neglect, and Death
The Inhumane Treatment of Prisoners in Rajayee Shahr
Of course you’ve heard the story of Evin prison: Midnight interrogations, single cells, the terrifying units 209 and 325, and conditions that drive prisoners to insanity and afflict them with all kinds of diseases. But, for years now, Evin has not been alone in the field of torturing and terrorizing Iranian political prisoners. Now we ask what is going on in the Rajayee Shahr prison in the Gohar Shahr town of Karaj? (1)
Last year in Rajayee Shahr prison, Vali-Allah Faiz Mahdavi lost his life after enduring nine days of food strike in the worst conditions of unit two. Ironically, one of his requests was to be transferred to Evin prison. Considering that the conditions in Evin can be most inhumane, what could possibly be happening in Rajayee Shahr that can make Evin seem like a refuge?
Sure, you can imagine the conditions that exist in this prison from the accounts of those that have been released. But until we experience them ourselves, we can’t understand the depth of the ongoing tragedy.
The threat of getting sent to this prison is like the threat of a terrifying death. It is a prison with a capacity of 1,122 that now, according to statistics, houses more than 5,500 prisoners.
Rumor has it that the head of Rajayee Shahr will soon be handed the leadership of Iran’s prison system. The reason for this shift is the prison’s toughness—it even prohibits disseminating information about the prison to the public. It seems that Rajayee Shahr is the only prison that has, to some extent, been able to hide beneath the radar of human rights advocates. Fortunately, news of the prison conditions has spread in recent years, saving many prisoners’ lives.
The key characteristic of this prison, which has shown itself more and more in recent years, is the absence of prisoner separation; prisoners are not classified by the degree or type of their crime. This issue is most controversial for political and ideological prisoners who are usually sent to the most crowded and dangerous units: Numbers one and five.
Prisoners arrested for expressing their opinion or social and political stance—as determined by the Islamic Republic’s national security organization—are sent to this prison where, in the best case scenario, the horrifying atmosphere prevents them from struggling or attempting to save themselves. Political prisoners have even died in the cells, and authorities do not accept any responsibility for their deaths.
The consolidation of prisoners, regardless of their crime, has repeatedly resulted in political prisoners going on food strikes to call for their division from the dangerous criminals and a separate unit for political prisoners; an unofficial report describes six prisoners who went on a such a strike. The presence of political and ideological prisoners alongside other criminals imposes horrible conditions on the political prisoners. Some longtime prisoners carry skin and digestive diseases, AIDS, Hepatitis, and other contagious diseases brought on by their extended stay in the prison. They even suffer from mental illnesses and sometimes completely lose control of themselves. These disease-ridden conditions, coupled with the fear of attack by another prisoner with a knife or sharp object, cause most of the ideological prisoners to stay awake all night to protect their lives. This continuing situation leads most prisoners to mental illness, among dozens of other problems. Psychological pressure stemming from the unbearable conditions of unit one in the Rajayee Shahr prison results in the suicide or attempted suicide of many prisoners. The prison health clinic, despite its mental and psychological divisions, only medicates the prisoners with downers and anti-depressants.
In 2005, news spread of three attempted murders and three suicides in unit one, the holding place of many political prisoners. The attempted murderers used hand-made knives to stab prisoner Sohrab Kolahsar in the face, Ghader Khalessi in the left eye, and Yoonis Youssefi Oskoo in the shoulder and arm. Two youths – Hossein Rasekh and Ali Zandi – and another unnamed prisoner committed a group suicide by overdosing on Largardin and Sanobarbitool pills. Yet another account of a death in unit one occurred in November 2007 when Abolfazl Botooni killed Mehran Fathieh by suffocating and repeatedly stabbing him.
The sanitary conditions of the Rajayee Shahr prison are abominable. Units filled five times above capacity, combined with the intentional negligence of sick prisoners who, due to lack of space, are in close proximity to healthy prisoners, threatens all the prisoners’ health. Not only do the health officials of the Islamic Republic have no legal obligation to maintain the health of the prisoners, they also purposely create and promote situations conducive to disease. Drug abuse—routine in the prisons of the Islamic Republic—has caused the spread of blood-related diseases. The prison cells are extremely cold and damp, and, since beds were removed to save space, prisoners are forced to sleep on the ground. The combination of all these conditions encourages the spread of disease in the prison, and there is no one to prevent it. As in all the prisons in the Islamic Republic, a variety of illegal drugs are freely available and accessible to the prisoners in Rajayee Shahr. This drug distribution, which is both widespread and systematic, has become a profitable business. The prison guards’ only comment on this issue is that, in the case of a death, the prisoners themselves are responsible for moving the corpse. According to unconfirmed reports, about 60 percent of the regular prisoners are drug addicts, and drugs like “crack” are the most popular among users. Legend holds that Mojtabah Assayeshi, a prisoner in unit two or “Dar-al-Quran” (the place of teaching the Quran), died from an overdose.
The Rajayee Shahr prison is known for its most crowded units: one, four, six, Farhangi (educational unit), five, Far’i five and two, and Andarzgah one, two, and five. Four or five prisoners normally occupy the 2x2.5 meter cells. The prison is also comprised of many hallways containing dimly-lit cells that may hide forgotten human beings behind their doors. In each cell, diseased people with endless pain are anxiously waiting for the end: A lifetime imprisonment, hanging, or stoning. Otherwise, they must endure the blatant injustices imposed upon them. In March of last year, a report indicated 27 prisoners that went on a food strike to protest their living conditions and the mistreatment by the prison authority, Ali Mohammadi, and other prison personnel.
As is customary in the prisons of the Islamic Republic, political activists face psychological pressure in various ways, such as the sudden and unofficial announcement, or even cancellation, of an execution sentence. With either their own hands or the help of violent prisoners, prison authorities can easily injure, disable, rape, or kill prisoners. A character sketch of the Interior Minister Khadem shows how these animals can easily drive prisoners to insanity and death. According to prison files from the year 2000, Mahmoud Moghnian exported young female prisoners to Dubai in a profitable sex trade with the help of former prison authority Mohammad Shekari.
The threat of sending prisoners to Rajayee Shahr has become a powerful instrument for interrogators at other prisons, often resulting in false confessions. When prisoners resist such interrogators, they are sent to Rajayee Shahr as a form of punishment and a lesson in compliance. Punishment in Rajayee Shahr entails sending prisoners to units with armed robbers and violent criminals, pouring hot water on their hands and feet, raping them, or sending them to units one and five. In this way, the authorities put the prisoner’s life in danger and, when necessary, the prisoner is brought to death at the hands of the other inmates.
The Islamic Republic has done whatever it pleases in the Rajayee Shahr prison. For example, the guards did not hold back from any violent or criminal actions against prisoners during protests last year. They transported the protesters to specified prison cells to undergo physical and mental torture, sometimes to the point of death. They hanged corpses from the entrance of the cell for more than five hours in order to teach the prisoners a lesson and discontinued vital medication for the sick. One prisoner driven to insanity cut his own testicles after the prison guards ignored his cries of pain caused by cut wrists and ankles.
The protocol for punishment is as follows: prison authorities transfer prisoners from Evin prison that resist or persist in their beliefs to Rajayee Shahr, where they are categorized into three different levels of torture. Upon entering Rajayee Shahr, the prisoners are harassed and tortured in accordance with their assigned category. For example, a “level three” prisoner is sent to a unit of regular and semi-dangerous inmates where he is punished in bad conditions. A “level two” prisoner is sent to a unit of armed robbers and violent, dangerous people where he is stripped of his clothes, jewelry, and money, beaten (but not disabled), raped, and drenched with boiling water. The guards also order these prisoners to drink urine and eat feces.
If the prisoner is classified as “level one”—which is usually reserved for a select few, closely-watched, inmates—he is sent to Andarzgah units one and five where convicted murderers are awaiting their own executions. The prison guards bribe these violent prisoners-turned-drug addicts to mercilessly kill others in exchange for a few grams of narcotics. Since these prisoners have nothing to lose, they are positioned as powerful killing instruments serving the goals of the prison guards.
When a new prisoner is transferred to a cell, the prison guard informs the veteran inmate of the timetable for his coming execution. Upon hearing this news, the prisoner sentenced to execution stabs the new inmate in order to delay his own execution date and stay alive for another year. In doing so, the prison guard achieves his goal and the prisoner is able to stay alive and reach a higher status in the prison yards. Win-win situation.
Other abuses occur in this prison. Lately, the prison authorities, namely Mahmoud Maghnian, manager of Andarzgah two and Dar-Al-Quran, force helpless, illiterate prisoners who are sentenced to less than two to three years to apply for jobs without compensation.
If the prisoners refuse or evade the unpaid labor, they are sent to the dangerous units one and five not for their original crime but for resisting the unpaid, inhumane work. This forces the prisoners to concede to the menial labor so they can transfer to a safer unit and protect their lives.
The obligatory tasks include sewing clothes for the army, working construction for the city, fixing the prison’s heating and air-conditioning system, making boots and shoes, and other jobs that mostly benefit the government. Rumor has it that the profits earned from this work do not go to the government fund, nor do they add to the budget of the prison. Instead, they are deposited directly into the bank accounts of the chief of the prison, Mohammad Haji Ali Kazem, his assistant Ali Mohammadi, and prison manager Mohammad Moghnian.
People accused of all kinds of crimes are kept in the Rajayee Shahr prison: Those charged with murder, armed robbery, violent assault, kidnapping, and the like, as well as those imprisoned for their opinions or political involvement. Inmates include religious missionaries (particularly those of the Sunni sect), religious reformers, student activists, social activists, human rights activists, and supporters of certain political ideologies. Forty of the fifty political prisoners in this unit are Kurds, fifteen of which are Iraqi Kurds arrested for illegally crossing the Iranian border. Though the sentences of these prisoners have long since expired, the prison guards refuse to set them free. Some prisoners who should have been released after two years are, for unclear reasons, denied their freedom and held for an additional three years.
Unfortunately, there are also children awaiting the sentence of their crimes. Under a policy which has long since come under the fire of human rights groups, the Islamic Republic keeps child murderers imprisoned until the age of eighteen, at which point it sends them to the execution chamber. Currently, there are about ten children in the different prison units waiting, in terror, to reach the legal age of execution. Two prisoners were executed in April of this year, one of whom, Mohammad Hooshmand, was less than eighteen-years-old at the time of his crime and spent three years in prison awaiting his dying day.
The term “exiled” has been coined for political prisoners who were transferred to Rajayee Shahr by the discretion of prison authorities. Currently, there are about fifty-six “exiled” political prisoners in this jail, most from prisons in the West and Northwest. It is important to note that the term “exiled” is being used as an “above-the-law” instrument by the department of national security. Sohrab Salimani, the head of Tehran prisons, has even said that the prison of Rajayee Shahr is the “exile” of the nation’s prisons.
Conditions are similar in the women’s unit, and the events that befall the women are telling of the chaos. The internal condition of the women’s unit in Rajayee Shahr—by virtue of the gender of its inhabitants and the issues that accompany it—have not made front page news, despite its own victims. In one instance, a few female prisoners under the leadership of a rebellious prisoner by the name of Shaheen killed two cellmates and made it appear as if the murders were suicides.
Rajayee Shahr prison is a forgotten house used for breaking political prisoners physically and psychologically and masking this abuse from the media and human rights groups. He who steps foot in this place must forsake his humanity. Despite the efforts of human rights activists and journalists, the prison is, to a great extent, hidden from public view. The political prisoners of Rajayee Shahr are forced to share cells with dangerous criminals, murderers, rapists, addicts, and drug dealers who don’t hesitate to attack their cellmates. These prisoners have nothing to lose and are frequently sentenced to life in prison or death. Unexplained deaths have plagued this prison, causing human rights groups to double their concern.
In mentioning the many crimes and abuses that occur in this prison, we must turn our attention not just to the executed and stoned but also to the forgotten prisoners, captive for years in this black hole, that come to their death without reason through murder or suicide. These people, under extreme pressure, lose their physical and mental health.
- Yahya Mojaveri, more than sixty-years-old, endured twenty-seven years in unit five as a forgotten prisoner;
- Baba Arsalan Ghorbani, more than seventy-years-old, spent twenty-three years in prison without a single visitation;
- Two prisoners were executed with one rope in 2004 while other prisoners were forced to witness the act;
- Ibrahim Eylamlu witnessed his own brother’s execution in the prison yard. He watched as the rope broke, causing his brother to fall from the plank. The freed prisoner hid in a corner of the prison yard until prison guards dragged him back to the plank and executed him again. This incident cost Ibrahim Eylamlu his sanity;
- Bahman Ma’soumi, who had a personal altercation with the prison manager, was taken to unit five without fair trial and, due to the prison manager’s instigation, attacked with a knife;
- Siamak Bandelo died in the prison health center of an anesthetic injection;
- Ali Sharifi, charged with insulting the prison manager and former head of security (Khadem), was hanged in his cell in his underwear.
These and other individuals illustrate the ongoing human rights disaster in the prisons of Iran.
Some of the information (such as names and reports from within the prison) is based on the accounts of prison survivors and the reports of human rights groups. These reports—although they are not official—have been checked and confirmed through different modes. Much of this information has also been published in the official reports of human rights organizations or posted on blogs, specifically in the web sites below: