Torture still scars Iranians 40 years after revolution

Iranian protesters demonstrate against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Tehran, Iran. Forty years ago, Iran's ruling shah left his nation for the last time and an Islamic Revolution overthrew the vestiges of his caretaker government. (AP)
Updated 06 February 2019

Torture still scars Iranians 40 years after revolution

  • The surviving inmates who suffered torture at the hands of the country's police and dreaded SAVAK intelligence service still bear both visible and hidden scars
  • SAVAK, created with the help of the CIA and Israel's Mossad, initially targeted communists and leftists in the wake of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh

TEHRAN: The halls of the former prison in the heart of Iran's capital now are hushed, befitting the sounds of the museum that it has become. Wax mannequins silently portray the horrific acts of torture that once were carried out within its walls.
But the surviving inmates still remember the screams.
Exhibits in the former Anti-Sabotage Joint Committee Prison that was run under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi include a frightened man trapped in a small metal cage as a cigarette-smoking interrogator shouts above him.
In a circular courtyard, a snarling interrogator is depicted forcing a prisoner's head under water while another inmate above hangs from his wrists.
As Iran this month marks the 40th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the shah, the surviving inmates who suffered torture at the hands of the country's police and dreaded SAVAK intelligence service still bear both visible and hidden scars. Even today, United Nations investigators and rights group say Iran tortures and arbitrarily detains prisoners.
"We are far from where we must be as far as the justice is concerned," said Ahmad Sheikhi, a 63-year-old former revolutionary once tortured at the prison. "Justice has yet to be spread in the society, and we are definitely very far from the sacred goals of the martyrs and their imam," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The SAVAK, a Farsi acronym for the Organization of Intelligence and Security of the Nation, was formed in 1957. The agency, created with the help of the CIA and Israel's Mossad, initially targeted communists and leftists in the wake of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh.
Over time, however, its scope was widened drastically. Torture became widespread, as shown in the museum's exhibits. Interrogators all wear ties, a nod to their Western connections. Portraits of the shah, Queen Farah and his son, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who now lives in exile in the US, hang above one torture scene.
"Following the coup, the shah's regime sank into a legitimacy crisis and it failed to get rid of the crisis until the end of its life," said Hashem Aghajari, who teaches history at Tehran's Tarbiat Modares University. "The coup mobilized all progressive political forces against the regime."
Sheikhi walked with Associated Press journalists through the prison that once held him, built in the 1930s by German engineers. Black-and-white photographs of its 8,500 prisoners from over the years line the walls. They include current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Sheikhi, then 19, spent about three months in the prison and 11 months in another after being detained for distributing anti-shah statements from Khomeini, then in exile.
"Four times I was tortured in two consecutive days, every time about 10 minutes," he recounted. "They used electric cables and wires for flogging my (feet) while I was blindfolded. The first hit was very effective; you felt your heart and brain were exploding."
Even more frightening was the torture device interrogators and prisoners referred to as the Apollo, named after the US lunar program. Those tortured sat in a chair and had a metal bucket strapped over their head, like a space helmet, that intensified their screams.
"They put my fingers and toes between the jaws of the vises firmly, whipped the soles of my feet with cables and put a metal bucket over head," Sheikhi said. "My own cries would twirl around inside the bucket and made me delirious and gave me headaches. They would hit the bucket with those cables as well."
Ezzat Shahi, another former prisoner who planted bombs targeting state buildings, recounted having pins hammered under his nails that would be heated by candles.
"Hanging from the wrists while your hands were handcuffed crossed behind was the most intolerable torture," Shahi said.
The horror of the torture shocked 20-year-old museumgoer Ameneh Khavari.
"I did not know that the torture might have been this agonizing, such as with the metal cage torture device," she said. "I had known that there was torture then from movies about the pre-revolution times, but would not have imagined that they looked like this."
As the revolution took hold, protesters overran the prison. Then Iran's Islamic government began using it as a prison as well, calling it Tohid. Human Rights Watch has accused Iran of using both Tohid and Evin prisons for detaining political prisoners. Tohid, then run by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, closed in 2000 under reformist President Mohammad Khatami after lawmakers sought to close prisons not under the control of the judiciary.
Today, Iran's government faces widespread international criticism from the UN and others over its detention of activists and those with ties to the West.
"Iranian authorities use vaguely worded and overly broad national security-related charges to criminalize peaceful or legitimate activities in defense of human rights," according to a report released in March 2018 by the office of the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.
Iran has criticized the UN's creation of the special rapporteur's position and called its findings "psychological and propagandist pressures."
A series of Westerners, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, were held at Evin Prison. Rezaian is suing Iran in US federal court over his detention, alleging he faced such "physical mistreatment and severe psychological abuse in Evin Prison that he will never be the same."
Since the revolution, several former prisons from the shah's time have closed, becoming museums and shopping malls, although new ones were built. A former mayor of Tehran even planned to make Evin Prison a park at one point. Funding never came through, however, and the site remains a prison today.


France recalls Turkey envoy after Erdogan ‘mental health’ jibe at Macron

Updated 38 sec ago

France recalls Turkey envoy after Erdogan ‘mental health’ jibe at Macron

  • France and its NATO ally are at loggerheads over a range of issues including maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean
  • Ankara has now been particularly incensed by a campaign championed by Macron to protect France’s secular values against radical Islam

ISTANBUL: France on Saturday said it was recalling its envoy to Turkey for consultations after comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggesting French counterpart Emmanuel Macron needed a mental health check-up that Paris condemned as unacceptable.
France and its NATO ally are at loggerheads over a range of issues including maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Syria and the escalating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
But Ankara has now been particularly incensed by a campaign championed by Macron to protect France’s secular values against radical Islam, a debate given new impetus by the murder this month of a teacher who showed his class a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed.
“What can one say about a head of state who treats millions of members from different faith groups this way: first of all, have mental checks,” Erdogan said in a televised address in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri.
“What’s the problem of the individual called Macron with Islam and with the Muslims?” Erdogan asked.
“Macron needs mental treatment,” Erdogan added, while indicating he did not expect the French leader to win a new mandate in 2022 elections.
In a highly unusual move, a French presidential official said that the French ambassador to Turkey was being recalled from Ankara for consultations and would meet Macron to discuss the situation in the wake of Erdogan’s outburst.
“President Erdogan’s comments are unacceptable. Excess and rudeness are not a method. We demand that Erdogan change the course of his policy because it is dangerous in every respect,” the official told AFP.
The Elysee official, who asked not to be named, also said that France had noted “the absence of messages of condolence and support” from the Turkish president after the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty outside Paris.
The official also expressed concern over calls by Ankara for a boycott of French goods.
Macron this month described Islam as a religion “in crisis” worldwide and said the government would present a bill in December to strengthen a 1905 law that officially separated church and state in France.
He announced stricter oversight of schooling and better control over foreign funding of mosques.
But the debate over the role of Islam in France has hit a new intensity after the beheading of Paty, which prosecutors say was carried out by an 18-year-old Chechen who had contact with a jihadist in Syria.
Turkey is a majority Muslim but secular country which is a part of NATO but not the EU, where its membership bid has stalled for decades over a range of disputes.
“You are constantly picking on Erdogan. This will not earn you anything,” said the Turkish leader.
“There will be elections (in France) ... We will see your (Macron’s) fate. I don’t think he has a long way to go. Why? He has not achieved anything for France and he should do for himself.”
The other new rift between the two leaders is over Nagorno-Karabakh — a majority ethnic Armenian breakaway region inside Azerbaijan, which declared independence as the USSR fell, sparking a war in the early 1990s that claimed 30,000 lives.
Turkey is strongly backing Azerbaijan in the conflict but has denied allegations by Macron that Ankara has sent hundreds of Syrian militia fighters to help Azerbaijan.
Erdogan on Saturday accused France — which along with Russia and the United States co-chairs the Minsk Group tasked with resolving the conflict — of “being behind the disasters and the occupations in Azerbaijan.”
He also repeated previous claims that France, which has a strong Armenian community, is arming Yerevan. “You think you will restore peace with the arms you are sending to Armenians. You cannot because you are not honest.”
But the Elysee official said that Erdogan had two months to reply to the demands for a change in stance and that it ends its “dangerous adventures” in the eastern Mediterranean and “irresponsible conduct” over Karabakh.
“Measures need to be taken by the end of the year,” said the official.