Time Stands Still in Solitary Confinement
Interview with Kianoosh Sanjari
Twenty-five year-old Kianoosh Sanjari has been arrested nine times and imprisoned six times since the year 2000. He has been accused of threatening Iranian national security, talking to foreign media, and keeping a blog that describes the situation of political prisoners in Iran. He was also imprisoned for his membership with a secular, anti-government student group.  Paramilitary forces founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Sanjari was the speaker for the United Group of Students, headed the Association of Political Prisoners, and is now a member of the Democratic Iran Society. Additionally, he writes an English blog covering news about Iranian political prisoners and is a member of the Iranian Blog Writers. Sanjari also publishes Farsi articles and interviews regarding human rights violations and the situation of Iranian political prisoners.
Sanjari shares with us his memories of prison, as well as his activities and difficult experiences as a student in Iran.
Please tell our readers about the first time you were arrested and what motivated you throughout your struggle.
Kianoosh Sanjari: I was first arrested in 2000 – when I was seventeen years old and in my third year at university studying graphic design – for attending a gathering that commemorated the injustices perpetrated against student protesters at the University of Tehran the previous year. Some Basijispunched me in the head and face, and had the university police not arrested me, they would have completely battered my face. While I was being arrested in front of the main door, other student activists were blindfolded.
What were you feeling at that time, especially at such a young age?
KS: I never thought I would be arrested. I could not have imagined what it’s like to be a prisoner: the conditions of prison, being blindfolded, the punching and kicking, the insults, and worst of all, solitary confinement. It was very difficult. I was a prisoner of the university police before I was transferred to solitary confinement in Evin Prison room 240, a one and a half by two and half meter cell. In the evenings I burst into tears, lost my breath, felt as if I was suffocating in despair, and I could hear girls crying in the hall.
After a couple of weeks, we were transferred to Tohid Prison, the same jail where the Shah imprisoned those who spoke against the government. The prison guards took us into the yard and seated us in a circle. Blindfolded, we could hear the sounds of people being tortured. I was filled with terror and always feared I was next to be tortured.
When you were imprisoned, did you regret what you had done?
KS: The first time I was arrested, I felt regret when the interrogator was slapping and shouting profanities and insults at me. When I was in solitary confinement, I remembered the government’s cruelty and the importance of claiming freedom. Then, I was able to restore myself mentally.
When you were released, how did you see yourself and your surroundings? How did your feelings differ from the first time you were released to the last time?
KS: In solitary confinement, I was separated from the real world; it was almost as if time had stopped. When I was released after my first arrest, I felt as if my heart started to beat again. It was night, and boys and girls were strolling on the sidewalks; life had a reason. I liked looking at the people and guessing the nature of their relationships with each other. Tehran seemed like a new city to me. In fact, everything felt new to me. This sense of newness wore off the second time around. My arrests changed my life and made me bitter. Arrest became inevitable, and after every release, I awaited my next arrest.
Why and how did you decide to continue to speak out against the regime?
KS: When expressing yourself leads to three months in solitary confinement, when prison authorities shave off your hair and fill your cheeks with water, when you are jailed, punched, insulted, arrested without just cause, and forced to remain alone because of one interview, you understand more than ever the grounds for your cause and the vain, despotic, and cruel nature of the people you are fighting. You realize you have the right to fight, learn never to doubt yourself, and recognize that freedom and justice are both essential and conceivable. When you delve into history, you see, hear, and read of thousands of people fighting and shedding blood in their own quests for freedom. Their stories illustrate that freedom is a reality. When you look inside yourself, you are faced with questions and continuously look for ways to answer them. In this path, you meet like-minded people in search of explanations to the injustices the government imposes. Now, you are no longer alone and can collaborate with other activists. The violent and repressive government only answers your questions by locking you in jail. But imprisonment does not stifle you; deeper questions formulate in your mind, inevitably causing you to further rebel against the regime.
How did the prison investigators treat you?
KS: I was arrested every year between 2000 and 2006, and each arrest was different from the others. The investigators in Military Prison 59, their behavior and methods, differed greatly from those in the Ministry of Intelligence’s prison. When I was arrested in 2001 for my alleged involvement with a parallel intelligence apparatus, I was sentenced to three months of solitary confinement in Military Prison 59. The investigators tried to break me down by insulting me and harassing me about my family. One time, Sayed Majipoursif and Hassan Hadad (Hassan Zareh Dahenary), spies and judges at the Revolutionary Court’s 26th branch, took me into the prison yard and insulted me. They questioned me not only about my membership with an illegal student group—the Society of United Students—but also about other members’ families.
In the summer of 2004, I, along with six of my friends, was arrested at a peaceful gathering outside the United Nations building and taken to Prison 209. The investigation started immediately. We sat facing a wall with our backs to the investigators, and, after a couple of days, they finally removed our blindfolds.
I was most recently arrested in 2006 while preparing a report for Barjordi Rohani and an international human rights organization about the Iranian government’s human rights violations. They arrested me without any charges and sent me to Evin Prison. In the first investigation session at Evin I could only hear the investigator’s voice. Before he said anything, he slapped my face seven times and said, “Whether you speak or not, you will be executed.”
How did you feel about the investigators?
KS: When you are faced with false accusations and violent investigators, you cannot help but laugh at the investigators, mere agents of a despotic system based on nothing more than violence. I found my Prison 59 investigator comical because all he did was insult me. I pitied him and all the investigators who are so blinded by religion that they defend the government. I realized then that I was confronting easily impressionable people without the ability to think for themselves.
How did you feel about solitary confinement?
KS: In prison section 209, my cell was one and a half-by-two meters. There was no window to let in fresh air, a lamp was lit all day and night, and the cell walls surrounded my body and mind. It felt like the cell had no air and the walls were physically stuck to my body, and I had a constant pressure in my throat. I would take steps for hours: three steps forward, three steps back. After a couple of days in this vacuum, the cell becomes your own little house. One time I was in the vacuum, cell number 63 in Prison 209, for 111 straight days. I searched the walls of my cell for new marks, like a hole, knob, or remnant of another prisoner, and asked myself, “How many of my fellow compatriots had been prisoners in the cell before me?”
Solitary confinement is white torture. It is mild. It may not be hard on you physically, but it destroys you mentally. Not hearing from your family and not speaking or seeing anyone become forms of torture. I could only see one meter in front of me. With the power of my imagination, however, I could look beyond the walls and leave the cell. I often imagined that my family was doing well, but all that I imagined was destroyed when the investigators told me that my mother was taken to the hospital.
What did you have in the cell with you?
KS: In Military Prison 59, I had two blankets, one plastic bucket, a small towel, a tablecloth, and a ladybug that, after a few days, left my cell. During my solitary confinement in Prison 209, I had three discolored, fetid blankets, a plastic basket for bread, and a plate and spoon for food. In solitary confinement at the Military Prison 320 in Evin, I only had three blankets. In cell 240 at Evin Prison, I had two ten-year-old blankets that were as big as my cell, a plate and spoon, and a sickening smell that filled the lice-infested room.
Why did you escape Iran?
KS: I made this difficult decision quickly and never looked back. Now, I am starting to better understand the urgency with which I made my decision. My choice was either wait in jail until the court decision – which could be suspended or pushed back – and remain uninformed and silent about the political situation, or continue my work as an activist and return to prison. Could I remain silent and stop writing my blog? After my release from jail, I was warned against updating my blog. At that moment, I knew I had to leave.
To tell you the truth, after the seventh or eighth time in prison, I became very tired. I felt a sense of helplessness and feared I could no longer stand the pains of prison. Maybe it was the seven or eight arrests, the two years in prison, of which nine months were in solitary confinement, and the mental and physical stress that completely wore me out. I wrote about my latest imprisonment in Prison 209 and the torture I experienced, but after a warning from the Ministry of Intelligence, I felt as if I could not publish anything anymore. My only options were to silence myself or wait and see what the governmental authorities would do to me next. It was a difficult decision and I was torn, but I knew I could not tolerate it anymore. I reached a border town in the middle of the night and illegally crossed the border into a neighboring country. After seven months, Amnesty International was able to bring me to a safe haven.
What is your biggest wish?
KS: My biggest wish is to go back to Iran at a time when there is no violence and citizens have rights. I want to be near my family and friends, and I want to be able to express my opinions without being imprisoned.
How do you think you, and all the other Kianooshes out there, can reach your goal?
KS: We can achieve our goals by modeling them after the International Human Rights Charter and by showing respect and generosity to people.
 Paramilitary forces founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini