Death in Iranian Prisons
Young Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti is the latest victim of Iranian prisons. Currently, Iranian Farsi-speaking media is filled with opinions and speculations about the death of Sattar Beheshti, whose body was returned to his family a week after his detention. The incident started on October 30th when the website HRANA reported that Sattar Beheshti had been arrested by the Internet Police (FTA) at his father’s home in Robat Karim. (1)
Two days later, the website Kalameh reported that he was being tortured by the FTA to confess and accept the charges. (2) Only a week after his detention, the news of his death was published in the media. Sattar’s sister told the reporter from Kalameh that: “They called my husband and asked him to prepare my mother, buy a grave and go and get the body the next morning. That’s it! We don’t know anything else. We don’t know why they killed him. My brother left the home healthy, on him own legs. They all saw that he was healthy. He didn’t even take any pain killers for headaches.” (3)
Beheshti himself had reported on his blog only a day before his detention that he had been threatened with torture and death. “They have threatened me that I should tell my mom that she is going to be wearing black [clothes of mourning] if I don’t shut my big mouth. They have said that they could do anything they want to and we should shut up and not publish the news. Otherwise, they will shut us up in such a way that no one can find any trace of us or understand what has happened to us.” (4)
Similar cases in Iranian prisons and detention centers
This is not the first time a person has died in detention or during interrogations. Before Beheshti, similar cases had occurred which were reported in the media and turned into national issues. Zahra Baniya’ghub, Zahra Kezami, Akbar Mohammadi, Omid Reza Mirsayyafi and Hoda Saber are other prisoners who died under suspicious circumstances in Iranian prisons. For example, Zahra Baniya’ghub was a young doctor who was arrested on October 12th 2007 by the Morality Police in one of the parks of Hamedan while she was talking with her fiancé. Forty-eight hours later, the news of her death was reported to her family. (5)
In 2003, Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi died suspiciously on the 18th day of her detention in Evin prison. Iranian officials insisted that her death was caused by accidental trauma to the head and bleeding. However, there was evidence of torture, beating and even rape. Canadian officials demanded a detailed explanation of the case but this never happened and finally the case was closed without reaching any clear conclusions. (6)
The most widely known case of this kind was the Kahrizak disaster. Kahrizak was a detention center which became internationally famous following the post-election protests of 2009. The fame of the detention center was due to the death of many detainees as a result of poor conditions and harsh torture. Mohsen Rouhol’amini, Mohammad Kamrani and Amir Javadifar were among the people who were detained during the Green Movement rallies after July 9th 2009, sent to Kahrizak and died. Eye witnesses and detainees who were later released from Kahrizak describe the conditions of this illegal prison as very dire.
Mehdi Karrubi, a former presidential candidate who considered the 2009 election results as fraudulent, wrote a letter to Hashemi Rafsanjani about torture of the detainees in Kahrizek. He provided the head of the judiciary Sadegh Larijani with evidence of the torture and asked that a special committee is formed to investigate these violations in Iranian prisons, especially in Kahrizak. A trial was held and on June 30th 2010, two defendants were sentenced to Qisas (Islamic retaliation). Nine others were sentenced to paying atonements and fines, lashes, some were temporarily suspended from their jobs and one individual was cleared of all charges. The families of the victims had wanted a trial for those people who gave the orders but public opinion was not convinced. (7)
BBC reported that Abdolhossein Rouhol’amini, the father of Mohsen Rouhol’amini, said, “We had hoped that those responsible, including those who had worked behind the scenes, would be punished and that those individuals who were prosecuted would not be limited to the low level and local people responsible for the crimes. Justice is served only when those giving the orders on the highest levels of the government, the judiciary and in universities are punished.” (8) Abdolhossein Rouhol’amini himself is a person who has held high offices, including deputy minister, and is a supporter of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The view point of the Human Rights and the constitution
A quick review of the International Declaration of Human Rights, numerous treaties, the Constitution and laws of the Islamic Republic shows that the violation of prisoners’ rights in Iran has become normal and systematic. The fifth article of the Declaration stresses the fact that no one should be tortured or be subject to cruel, inhumane and degrading punishments. According to article 11, every defendant is innocent unless they are found guilty in a public trial that has provided the necessary guarantees for a legal defense.
There is evidence that proves Sattar Beheshti was tortured during interrogations. According to Deutsche Welle, the website Kalameh reported that in an open letter 41 prisoners in the 350 ward of Evin prison claimed that Sattar Beheshti had been tortured during his interrogation by the security police. This open letter reads: “When Sattar was transferred to the 350 ward, the scars and evidence of torture were visible all over his body. He was wounded and in pain. His face was injured, there were bumps on his head, his wrists were bruised and there was evidence that he had been hanged from the ceiling by his wrists. On different parts of his body, including around the neck, stomach and waist there were signs of beating and bruises.” (9)
Sattar Beheshti’s death violates several principles of the Islamic Republic Constitution. According to the 23rd principle of the constitution “Inquisition is illegal and no one can be prosecuted for the mere reason of having an opinion.” However, Sattar Beheshti was threatened and detained for expressing ideas that were not compatible with the official ideology of the Islamic Republic. Also according to the 38th principle of the constitution, “all torture for the purpose of obtaining a confession or information is illegal.” Lastly, based on the 39th principle of the constitution, the abuse of detainees is illegal and punishable by law.
Reactions to Sattar Beheshti’s death
As a result of its high sensitivity, Beheshti’s death gained significant reactions from human rights organizations, Iranian government officials and even foreign governments. According to Radio Farda, Reporters without Borders (RSF) asked about the conditions of Beheshti in prison on November 9th. (10) Amnesty International also claims that it is “highly likely” that the blogger Sattar Beheshti was killed under torture in prison and requested Islamic Republic officials to investigate. (11)
Iranian officials were not silent about this incident either. Ahmad Tavakkoli, a representative of Tehran in the Islamic Parliament, was one of the first people to protest about Beheshti’s death in his address to parliament and called it a new excuse for the enemies of the regime. After a number of days, the human rights campaign of the judiciary released a statement and expressed the steadfast will and zero tolerance of the judiciary in its investigation to find those responsible for the death of this Iranian. (12) However, the preliminary report that was read in the general assembly of parliament did not contain any special information and causes concern that politicians are trying to kill time until the case has lost its sensitivity to the public.
Meanwhile foreign governments reacted to Beheshti’s death. According to the website of the British foreign ministry, the Mideast and North Africa deputy condemned the suspicious death and insisted that if the reports about his death are accurate, the Iranian government has committed a shameless act to suppress free speech. (13) Also Victoria Nuland, the spokeswoman of the US State Department stated that: “This 35 year old blogger had committed no crime but to express his political ideas.” (14)
The unknown ending of Sattar Beheshti’s case
Although three of the interrogators of the case were arrested, most observers do not have high hopes for a fair investigation for the people who ordered the torture. The incidents in recent years show that the violations of defendants and prisoners’ rights in Iran have become a systematic trend. It also appears that there are more cases of the death of political prisoners than the cases which are actually reflected in the media. The policy of the government in this case is to give authority to the interrogators and security forces to treat the defendants the way they want to, without any supervision. So far, a serious will to prosecute these cases has not been shown and usually such cases have only resulted in light sentences for low level agents while the main commanders are not investigated.