By Nazanin Jahani in Tehran (MR No. 9, 04-Aug-09)
“Don’t you have a heart? Are you made of stone?”
In the street outside Evin Prison, a girl of about 23 dressed in a black coat and scarf is crying loudly and cursing the officials behind the window who are refusing to let her see her brother, who has been held for more than a month.
“They have broken his ribs. His fingers are crooked. Is anybody in there to hear us?” she cried.
“He was arrested on June 20,” Mahsa (not her real name) told me moments later. “We applied to see him several times, but they are now saying only parents can apply to meet prisoners. We do not have a father. Only my mother has been allowed to see him and only for the briefest of moments even though he is so sick. It’s been a week that we haven’t had any news of him.”
Right next to the window where prison officials have just rejected Mahsa’s request to visit, a notice states that those allowed in to see prisoners include all immediate family members including brothers and sisters.
I ask the people in the long queue of applicants why it is those behind the window are not allowing Mahsa to visit her brother and I am told the law does not apply to the families of “agitators” – the label given to the post-election protesters. That procedures around so-called agitators are different inevitably suggests forces other than the rule of law govern their cases.
Mahsa’s shouting emboldens others who have stayed quiet until then. Some elderly women in the queue also start shouting and demanding to know on what basis their children are being held and why their requests to visit or even engage a lawyer have been denied. A man in plain clothes approaches Mahsa and asks her to go with him. She looks at me, and follows him hesitantly.
Over the past few days the list of prisoners to be released that day has been posted on the wall of the Evin Court but today the officer pushes the crowds away, telling us, “There will be no more notices here. Go to the Revolution Court.”
The families of detainees are left with no choice but to run back and forth between prison, the court and morgues each day in this intolerably hot weather.
The Islamic Revolution Court was established 30 years ago on a temporary basis, to try “anti-revolutionary” criminal cases. It remains active today and deals specifically with “security” cases including the many protesters detained after the contested June election result.
Sitting in front of the Islamic Revolution Court on the pavement is Ahmad, who has spent days in the dark about the whereabouts of his son. Despite his continuous enquiries, Ahmad has not received a clear answer – only criticism and abuse. “They don’t give me an answer. His name is not on the list and every day I am told to come back the next day. I just asked them to tell me if he is dead or alive – but I still have not got an answer,” he said.
Ahmad is one of the many parents seeking news about their children. There has still been no official statement from the government on the number of detainees and of those whose whereabouts are unknown. In an informal announcement, the death toll was said to be 20, but human rights organisations inside Iran believe the true figure is more like 200.
Those families who get confirmation and proof of the death of their children are put under further pressure by the authorities. They are ordered to conduct silent ceremonies and burial rituals. No memorial events are allowed in the mosques and no loud mourning at the graveside. In some cases, families have been asked to sign declarations that the deceased had suffered a serious illness.
Debate around the real death toll intensified after a mother was taken to a cold storage facility on Saveh Road that was originally designed to keep fruit. There she claims to have seen many bodies.
Neda Agha-Soltan, Sohrab Arabi, Mohsen Rooholamini, Kiarash Asa, Amir Javadifar, Mohammad Kamrani and Behzad Mohajer are well known victims of the recent turmoil whose stories have been reported. But there are many others whose names are not yet known because their families, friends and neighbours are too scared as yet to speak out.
As a consequence of the protests, the killings, the widespread reported torture – and now the public show trial of 100 leading reformists – the Iranian authorities are facing a new moral challenge as an Islamic regime. While it is unlikely the Iranian government will easily change its stance against the protesters in the near future, the huge protests have undoubtedly left their mark. A considerable section of the government are deeply traditional and hold Islamic principles such as compassion very dearly. Consequently, the authorities’ hard line response to the protesters – especially young people – has seriously unnerved them.
Nazanin Jahani is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tehran.
Mianeh is an IWPR-run initiative to provide an independent open webspace for ideas, analysis and debate for Iranian journalists and writers. This article is taken from Mianeh’s bilingual website, http://mianeh.net/