The Realities of Life Inside Gohardasht Prison
An Interview with Bina Darabzand and Alireza Jabbari
Although Gohardasht Prison was built by the Pahlavi regime, the prison is only as old as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) was never able to inaugurate it. In the first days after the revolution, when all actions of the previous regime were depicted as criminal and wrong, national television aired a special program showing the half-finished Gohardasht Prison, harshly criticizing the toppled regime for founding such institutions. The smoke of the revolution had not yet dispersed before the machinery of suppression began working again, trampling anything labeled “antirevolutionary.” Although the available prisons had accommodated a large number of prisoners—the young and old, men and women, even children—and the basements of many mosques and expropriated properties were used as detention centers, the new regime urgently needed more prisons. Gohardasht was one of the first prisons inaugurated by the post-revolutionary regime. In the summer of 1988, Gohardasht prison, later renamed “Rajaei Shahr”, became the center of one of the most catastrophic, barbaric, and inhumane scenes.
Bina Darabzand was one of the prisoners of Gohardasht. He was released in early August 2006 after spending the last two years in Evin, the most famous prison in Iran, and Gohardasht.
Born in 1957, Darabzand graduated from J.F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento, California. He then entered Cosumnes River College in the same city and finished his studies at California State University, where he majored in accounting and commercial management. Darabzand became active in the International Students’ Confederation at around the same time. At the age of 18, he was elected cultural secretary of the Iranian Students’ Union in the United States. With the beginning of the revolution in 1978, he traveled back to Iran; with the onset of suppression, he went back to the United States; once again, he returned to Iran in 1986.
Darabzand guided the reviving student movement in 2001. In the summer of 2002, he was detained and transferred to Evin. He was eventually released but in July 2004, during a rally campaigning for the release of political prisoners, Darabzand was again detained, this time in front of UN headquarters in Tehran. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment, accused of acting against the nation’s security.
Alireza Jabbari, a writer, translator, member of the Iranian Writers’ Association, and winner of the Hillman-Hammett human rights award, spent most of his imprisonment in Gohardasht. He was released as a result of international pressure, specifically a letter written by Isabel Allende to the then president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, in October 2004. We interviewed Alireza Jabbari and Bina Darabzand about Gohardasht.
Bina Darabzand describes his arrest in this fashion: “I was one of 35 to36 people arrested in a rally in front of the UN headquarters in Tehran on August 17, 2004. I spent 60 days in solitary confinement, section 209. Then I was transferred to the general section of Evin. In Branch Six of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, I was sentenced to three-and-a-half years imprisonment for the charge of acting against the country’s security and founding underground organizations. Later, the Supreme Court rejected the latter charge and reduced the term of imprisonment to two years.”
If the 60 days in solitary confinement, which imposes significant emotional and mental pressure on the prisoner, is not taken into account, Darabzand has not been physically tortured. However, criminal prisoners intended to kill him several times. About his imprisonment in Gohardasht, he says: “I suffered emotional and spiritual pressures while being practically held in the murderers’ ward for six months.”
Alireza Jabbari recounts a different story. After an interview with the Iranian paper Shahrvand, published in Canada in January 2003, he was detained in his office in the Tehran University Publications Center. He was interrogated and tortured in solitary confinement for 40 days. Except for a short telephone conversation with his wife, he could not contact anybody, not even his own attorney. Some of the tortures he has undergone include cold weather exposure, his mustache being plucked, and his being verbally insulted and beaten.
Released after 40 days, Jabbari was once again arrested the night before the Iranian New Year (March 2003) because of another interview he had given in which he disclosed the tortures suffered during his days in detention. In a one-hour trial without the presence of an attorney, Jabbari was sentenced to prison and flogging. He started his prison term in the old prison of Qasr; after Qasr was closed down, he was transferred to Gohardasht.
Jabbari is in his seventies and suffers from a heart problem. He says, “In Gohardasht, they did not give me my heart medications. It was several weeks until I could buy back my own medications from the prison guards.” He was also suffering from persistent cold because he was not given enough clothes or blankets.
Darabzand describes his imprisonment term in Ward One of Gohardasht: “All my prison mates were sentenced to execution and “qesas” (Islamic retaliation punishment). They looked at this center not as a temporary station that they would eventually leave, but as the end of their life. There were clashes every night. On many occasions, the clashes ended in injuries and even prisoners’ deaths.”
Meanwhile, a student-run human rights group, the Students’ Committee for the Defence of Political Prisoners, was publishing many Internet reports on the conditions of Gohardasht prisoners. The spokeswoman of the group, Shiva Nazar Ahari, confirms that the source of the reports was Darabzand. Admitting his reports, Darabzand continues, “The prisoners of the ward were running their own businesses; the sale of narcotics and gambling was an integral part of their lives. If someone was in debt and could not pay it back, he was sometimes attacked from behind, either asleep or awake. There were 600 prisoners in that ward then and that was their lifestyle. The end result of the clashes was daily injury and it led to a tragic murder almost weekly.”
He remembers one of the attacks he had witnessed: “On one occasion, a young man was attacked by 20 people. They stabbed him using a kind of knife they call ‘the tormentor,’.,, which is a sieve-like instrument.. He died within a few minutes.”
Bina Darabzand tells us how the murder scenes affected him: “Witnessing those actions could make us lose all our faith in humanity. Fortunately, we were able to analyze the situation and become firmer in our humanitarian beliefs.”
Darabzand, a political activist, describes the mixture of political and non-political prisoners in Gohardasht: “You will recall that in the winter of 2004 and the spring of 2005, the prisoners at Evin and Gohardasht went on a hunger strike, calling for the separation of the prisoners according to their crimes. In the end, in June 2005, a political ward was established in Gohardasht, where most of the political prisoners were transferred. This place is called Ward Two.”
Kasra Tehrani: Do you know how many people Gohardasht Prison can accommodate? In fact, how many prisoners are there?
Bina Darabzand: There are six Advice Wards (“andarzgah”), each consisting of three halls. Each Advice Ward contains 800 prisoners. However, I think it cannot officially accommodate more than 600 prisoners. Altogether, around 5,000 prisoners are held in the official wards of the prison. Of course, sometimes the prison was too crowded and they had to use the corridors, mosques, places of religious assembly (“hosseyniye”) and even, sometimes, the bathrooms.”
What are the unofficial wards?
There are rumors of unofficial wards. It is said that the Al Qaeda prisoners are kept there.
How reliable are the rumors?
We witnessed some incidents that indicated the existence of the unofficial wards. While I was still in prison, there was a riot that everybody heard about. I reported the incident to outside observers. There were no signs of the riot in any of the six Advice Wards, though. As a result, the evidence pointed to riot taking place in the unofficial wards.
What kinds of evidence indicated of a riot?
We saw the anti-riot forces. Clearly, they were accomplishing a specific mission in prison.
You reported that not all the political prisoners were transferred to Ward Two. Do you know any political prisoners from the other wards?
Honestly, only the prisoners that had access to the media were transferred to the political section, that is to say, the prisoners who were well-known. The rest of the political prisoners were sent to different Advice Wards. There is no exact and accurate estimate as to their numbers. We repeatedly asked the prison management to hand over a list of prisoners. They ignored our request. I suppose the total number of political prisoners in Gohardasht amounts to more than 30. Although he was well-known, Hojat Zamani was among those who were not transferred to the political ward. He was hanged in the winter of 2005. For awhile, there were 11 political prisoners there, but they gradually scattered us. Arzhang Davoodi was sent to Bandar Abbas Prison. Along with Pour Mansourian, I was transferred to Evin. Those remaining now number seven. Of course, we know people who have access to the media, though not in the political section. Asad Shaghaghi is in Section Six; my exiled friend, Behboudi, is another prisoner sent from Evin to Gohardasht and was held in Cultural Section 5.
Darabzand tells us about his feelings regarding prison guards: “The regime chooses its prison guards from among the most faithful to the regime. I saw more than 50-60 guards and of them, I would say just two or three of them treated us according to the law and bylaws. Most of them saw us as enemies and tried to abuse us. Their behavior generated hatred. But, personally, if I confront them, I will only allow it to be by legal and lawful action.
Concerning the eighteenth anniversary of the mass execution of prisoners in 1988, Bina Darabzand says: “Based on the available information, a large number of those executions took place in Gohardasht. Nowadays, one can see enormous differences between the behavior of the prison guards then and the current administration.”
That said, however, he does not interpret these differences to indicate a change in the “regime’s nature.” He believes that the loss of public support the regime enjoyed then is the reason for the different approach now: “I believe the prison administration was trying to make it as hard as possible for us in Gohardasht. As long as the regime felt powerful, it did not shrink from any crimes against people, including political prisoners; and if it tries to save face today, it is the result of its weakness,” Darabzand says.
Bina Darabzand who was recently transferred to Evin, is one of the people who spent time with Akbar Mohammadi during the last minutes of his life. He witnessed his death a week before his own release. He knew Akbar Mohammadi before his imprisonment and established a close and friendly relationship with him in the three months preceding the end of his own sentence. He and Mohammadi used to discuss current political events. Darabzand describes Mohammadi’s last days in these words: “Except for the three days he was hospitalized in the clinic, I was with him, especially in the last hour of his life. Although he was in poor condition, none of us could believe that this brave young man might pass away.”
According to Darabzand, all the prisoners in the ward where Mohammadi was held wanted him to break his hunger strike; however, the prison guards pushed him toward a situation which left him with no other option but to continue it. His requests were legitimate and were the least a sick prisoner could have asked for.
According to Darabzand, Akbar Mohammadi’s prison mates took him to the prison’s clinic three times, but the clinic’s administration rejected him. Darabzand says: “He started his hunger strike on Sunday. Finally, with his worsening condition and our pressure, the prison’s clinic admitted him at 3 A.M. on Thursday. Three days later, after he was transferred back to the ward, Akbar Moahammadi, in the last minutes of his life, informed his prison mates that they had not only done nothing to treat him, but they had beaten him as well.”
Akbar Mohammadi’s presence in the clinic coincided with the visit of some parliamentary members to the prison. Darabzand discusses Mohammadi in his last hour, saying, “Akbar explained how they had beaten him in the clinic, handcuffed him, and shut his mouth so that he could not attract the attention of parliamentary members with his shouts and cries. There were bruises on his waist and the traces of handcuffs on his wrist. These indicated that his remarks were not exaggerated.”
Darabzand says that inmates working in the prison’s clinic at the time testified that Movahedi, the head doctor at the clinic, had officially informed the prison management that, because Akbar Mohammadi had suffered a slight heart attack, his hunger strike would be deadly to him. As a doctor, Movahedi had recommended Mohammadi’s release so that he could visit a doctor outside the prison and receive better treatment. However, the prison management said they would send Akbar to the ward to die.”
Bina Darabzand continues: “One of the deputy administrators of the prison had asked Akbar to break his hunger strike; Akbar had rejected his request. The officer told him that in that case, he would send him to the ward to die like a dog.”
Darabzand describes the last minutes of Akbar Mohammadi: “It was almost an hour after he was back from clinic. His friends were changing his clothes, which had not been changed during his last three days at the clinic. Suddenly his face swelled and his teeth locked. He was still on the stretcher. Prisoners lifted the stretcher and took him to the clinic. A few minutes later, we unbelievably heard he was gone.”
Bina Darabzand charges the deputy administrator of the prison with Mohammadi’s death: “The doctor had informed him of Akbar’s medically critical situation and the deputy administrator and others in charge knew that sending Akbar back to the prison would end in his death. He had to be medically treated outside the prison but they sent him back to the ward, where not even an aspirin was available. Nonetheless, the Prosecutor General and Intelligence Ministry are named as the main culprits in Akbar’s death. Knowing that Mohammadi should not have been imprisoned with his illness, they still arrested him when he was under house arrest. Therefore, they share the responsibility for his death.”
Bina Darabzand, the political activist and former prisoner of Evin and Gohardasth, ends this interview by remembering the victims of the mass executions of 1988. Alireza Jabbari, the writer and translator who experienced the hardships of Gohardasht with his own flesh and blood, ends the interview by saying: “Our martyrs consciously left us to enrich the tree of freedom in this grief-stricken country.”