Prisoners' letters upset Iranian officials

Journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi, right, at an August hearing in Tehran, is serving six years in prison, tollowed by lifelong exile in a province.
Journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi, right, at an August hearing in Tehran, is serving six years in prison, tollowed by lifelong exile in a province. (Hassan Ghaedi)
By Thomas Erdbrink
Saturday, October 2, 2010

TEHRAN - For Iranian political prisoners, being locked away is not necessarily a barrier to speaking out.

In a series of taboo-breaking letters written from prison, activists, politicians and journalists - most of them arrested in the aftermath of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed June 2009 election victory - have been telling of torture, criticizing Iranian leaders and encouraging others to continue their protests.

Government officials and their supporters in the media say the criticisms threaten national security and are demanding that judiciary officials put a stop to them.

Abdollah Momeni, a former student leader, described in vivid detail in a recent letter how he was brutally beaten dozens of times by his interrogators, kept for weeks in a tomblike cell and forced to confess to crimes he says he did not commit.

"All this treatment is carried out in the framework of a religious regime, justified by claims of protecting the state," Momeni, 34, wrote in the letter published three weeks ago on the Web site of a human rights group that is critical of the Iranian government. "Haven't the law enforcement officials and the rulers of the current government of the Islamic Republic failed the test of justice, morality, and humanity?" Momeni also used the letter to call for the establishment of a truth commission to investigate the conduct of prison interrogations.

Momeni is one of what foreign-based human rights groups say are about 500 prisoners of conscience, the majority of whom were arrested after the elections.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration stepped up its pressure on Ahmadinejad, with a new set of sanctions intended to punish top Iranian officials deemed responsible for the arbitrary detention, killing, torture and beating of Iranian citizens since the 2009 presidential election.

During mass trials, many of them admitted to having been part of a Western-inspired plot to organize riots and bring down the Islamic Republic. But many later said that their confessions had been made under duress. Most of the accused anti-government activists - including Momeni - received long prison sentences.

It is unclear how his and dozens of other messages traveled beyond the walls of Tehran's Evin prison, where most of the country's political prisoners are held. But family members and friends have said the letters are authentic, and foreign-based opposition Web sites and television channels have published many of them, much to the anger of some Iranian officials.

"Our prisons have become a center for issuing statements and declarations," Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi told the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency last week. "Where in the world do prisoners issue statements?" he asked.

The news agency, headed by a close Ahmadinejad ally, even accused the judiciary of secretly supporting some of the political prisoners. "These professional criminals . . . are in practice continuing their riots," the news agency wrote. There have been several recent high-profile conflicts between the government and the judiciary, including disagreement over the release last month of Sarah Shourd, an American held with two others since July 2009, and the sentencing of a woman convicted of adultery.

'Preferential treatment'?

Remarks made during closed-door court sessions have also been leaked. During his court proceeding in July, statements from journalist Isa Saharkhiz that it was the government, not the opposition, that was breaking the law, appeared almost simultaneously on opposition Web sites, even though by law the court sessions are to remain secret.

In his widely distributed defense papers - translated by Iranian activists abroad - Saharkhiz argued that the judiciary had acted arbitrarily by arresting him.

He referred to a famous incident during a 2004 court case when influential cleric Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei jumped on the journalist and bit him in the shoulder. The journalist filed a complaint, but nothing happened. Mohseni-Ejei is Iran's chief prosecutor.

"And after a complaint by him [Mohseni-Ejei] against me, I am now tortured, beaten shamelessly, arrested, and imprisoned for an unlimited period? Is this not the sign of preferential treatment in Iran's judiciary system?" Saharkhiz wrote.

On Monday, Saharkhiz was sentenced to three years in prison and a five-year ban on political and media activities for insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and insulting the political system, the Aftabnews Web site reported. Saharkhiz said Thursday he would not appeal, according to the Sahamnews Web site, which quoted him as saying he did not want to be "a part of this circus."

Saharkhiz has also co-written letters from prison to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Brazilian President Lula da Silva that have been posted on the Internet. And from prison, he sued Nokia Siemens Networks for providing Iranian security officials with key surveillance systems that led to his arrest.

'He is not a threat'

Opposition sources say some prison wards containing political prisoners are overseen by intelligence officers, members of the revolutionary guard and other security forces.

During a first period of questioning, the prisoners are often kept in isolation and are permitted only later to share cells and make phone calls, opposition sources say. Most prisoners are allowed to meet with family members.

In addition to the recent statements from prisoners, a vocal group of political prisoners' families has been organizing meetings with officials, demanding that their relatives be released.

"My husband has written articles; he is not a threat to national security," said Mahdieh Mohammadi, the wife of Ahmad Zeidabadi, a well-known journalist, serving six years in prison, to be followed by lifelong exile in a province.

"We are trying to get officials to pay attention to his and other cases," Mohammadi said during a recent interview. "But we can only be hopeful they will act."

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