The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I know Iran’s most notorious prison is built on abuse. Now the world can see it, too.

A guard looks at surveillance screens at Evin Prison in Tehran. (The Justice Of Ali/AP)
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The release of security camera footage from inside Iran’s notorious Evin Prison provides proof of what many already know to be true: that Iranian authorities routinely abuse prisoners and keep them in inhumane conditions. Among the scenes captured in the leaked videos are an inmate being beaten by multiple guards, another attempting to commit suicide and dozens of inmates being housed in a single room with bunk beds stacked three high. Those cramped quarters are certainly a contributing factor to the high spread of covid-19 inside Evin.

It’s difficult to predict what impact this leak might have, if any, especially since it’s still unclear who was behind it. A group that calls itself “the Justice of Ali” claims to have accessed prison archives of footage and other documents going back years. But it seems as though the perpetrators could as easily be internal regime actors with their own political agenda, as several people I spoke to about the incident who have experience being detained inside the prison believe is possible.

I was detained in Evin for 544 days from July 2014 until January 2016. Though I spent my entire captivity in an isolated wing of the prison, including a long stretch in solitary confinement — which itself is considered a form of torture based on international norms — through my limited interaction with other prisoners and guards, I heard much about the unjust and inhumane conditions of the prison’s public wards.

Upon seeing the violent leaked images, I reached out to other former inmates to get their reactions.

The first person I called was one of my former cellmates, a businessman who was charged with unsubstantiated financial crimes and spent nine years in Evin for being successful while Kurdish. He is now outside of Iran. I joked that he is on the verge of being famous, because he’d been locked up for so long that he would undoubtedly appear in the videos if more are to be released.

We laughed — because what else are we going to do? — and then lamented the years of our lives wasted to a crooked system.

“I witnessed so many terrible moments in that prison, including some of the scenes in these videos,” he told me. “Whoever is behind it, I hope it leads to real change.”

On Tuesday, in a rare act of official contrition, the head of Iran’s Prison Organization took responsibility for what he termed “unacceptable behaviors.” “I will commit to not letting these horrific incidents being repeated, and deal seriously with law breakers,” Mohammed Mehdi Haj-Mohammadi said.

But those words ring hollow, as abuse of prisoners is embedded in the identity of the 50-year-old prison.

Nizar Zakka, a U.S. permanent resident who was held hostage in Evin from 2015 to 2019and is now the founder of the Washington-based organization Hostage Aid Worldwide, said the memories the videos evoked for him were very painful, but he is glad these images are available.

“I was surprised that there was anyone who could still be shocked that such atrocities take place in Evin,” Zakka told me. “They send an important message to the international community. Foreign governments, NGOs and rights organizations cannot deny or minimize the abuse any longer.”

To me, this breach is a reminder that Iran’s cyber capabilities, which are increasingly being touted by Tehran and its adversaries as world class, are in fact very much third rate. When it comes to sensitive digital material, the regime’s porousness has been exposed time and again, from cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities to the country’s transportation networks. Perhaps that’s due to internal division, or adversaries’ superior technology. Or maybe it’s Iran’s own laziness, as this crooked system sags under the weight of its history of hypocrisy.

I’ve long believed that the transparency that is a product of our near-universal access to digital communications is poison for authoritarians, who have traditionally shunned even the notion of accountability for their abuses. Leaks like this one are bound to keep coming, and there is increasingly little Iranian officials will be able to claim in their defense. No one inside Iran doubts that torture is one of the pillars Evin is built on — and with stories like this, no one outside Iran can, either.