Former Iranian political activist and prominent journalist Houshang Asadi
was jailed under the rule of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He was jailed for six years and tortured again after Iran became an Islamic republic. The 59-year-old Asadi, who lives in exile in Paris, recounts his experiences in a new book, "Letters To My Torturer: Love, Revolution And Imprisonment In Iran."
In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, Asadi says prisons in the Islamic republic and torture methods used against political prisoners are far worse than they were under the shah's rule. Asadi also speaks about one of his former cellmates, Ali Khamenei, who is now Iran's supreme leader, as well as his torturer, "Brother Hamid," whom he says later became a diplomat.RFE/RL: You experienced the jails of the shah's regime in the 1970s and some 10 years later those of the Islamic republic. How different were they? When you compare the prison conditions and torture you were subjected to, which one was worse?
I wasn't tortured in prison during the shah's regime. I was just slapped once in the face, but I witnessed how many of my friends were tortured. In the prisons of the Islamic republic, I was subjected to different types of torture. The main difference I see is the difference between an ideological intelligence apparatus and a nonideological one.
Under the shah, intelligence officers would do their work; they were after information and they would unfortunately use torture. In the prisons of the Islamic republic, we faced either ideologically oriented interrogators or those who pretended they were. Their first duty was to break the prisoner. Only after that would they go after information and other issues. By crushing the prisoners, they wanted to prove their ideological superiority. For them, obtaining information was secondary.
It's because of that that torture in the Islamic republic has reached astonishing dimensions. It can't be compared to the time of the shah. The Islamic republic's interrogators have made the infamous interrogators of the shah look tame by comparison.RFE/RL: You shared a cell in 1974 with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who went on to become Iran's supreme leader. You both opposed the shah. You describe him in your book as a friendly, human person who enjoyed literature and also "inoffensive" jokes. Some have criticized you for your description of a man who is now seen by many as a dictator. Can you tell us more about your relation with Khamenei?
What I wrote in my book about my time with Khamenei in a cell goes back 40 years. Since then, the world has gone through major changes. Khamenei, a former prisoner who spent time in a cell with someone like me, who had opposing views, has become the supreme leader. I shouldn't be criticized for writing about his personality at that time. What I wrote is true.
When I met him in prison, he was a nice person, someone who always had a smile. He was a real believer who would read the Koran and pray and weep and sob loudly. He was of a happy nature and understood literature. In general, he was a positive person. Since he came to power, the world has changed. As a matter of fact, I think the image I have given of Khamenei and the image we have from him now demonstrate what power does to people, how it turns a tortured prisoner into someone who is in charge of hundreds of torturers and who tortures others through them.RFE/RL: What would you tell Khamenei if you could talk to him right now?
On a cold winter day in 1975, I was about to be transferred from the cell we'd been sharing. [Khamenei], who was very thin, was shaking. I was wearing a sweater, which I took off and gave to him. He first resisted and didn't want to take it. When he finally accepted it and put it on, we hugged each other. He cried and told me, "Houshang, when Islam will come to power, not a single tear will be shed."
I would like to ask him, "Mr. Khamenei, do you remember what you said that day? Now that you've become the most powerful ruler in the history of Iran, is no tear being shed? Or, on the contrary, are we witnessing tragedies that are unprecedented in the history of Iran?"
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: "Someone who always had a smile."RFE/RL: You recount in your book the physical and psychological torture you were subjected to by your interrogator, "Brother Hamid," who forced you to falsely confess to operating as a spy for the British and Russian intelligence services. Can you tell us about the techniques he used? What was the worst torture you were subjected to?
I can briefly say -- I've written about the details in my book -- that he used every kind of torture he could. Not to get information from me. I was a journalist; I didn't have any information. He was actually trying to extract from me information I didn't have. In fact, he had written a scenario, and I had to confess to his scenario. And finally under torture he managed to make me confess.
The worst was the psychological torture because the effects of physical torture disappear as time goes by, but the psychological torture I was subjected to still bothers me. Psychological torture remains in one's spirit and mind. I remember when he would whip me and call me a dirty spy or when he would pretend that he had my wife and that he would torture her. That was very painful for me -- more than [physical pain]. And, of course, when I could hear them torturing my friends and I could hear their shouts and cries -- [I was] affected by that more than the physical torture he subjected me to.RFE/RL: Rights groups and former detainees say some of the same torture and interrogation techniques were used against those who were arrested in the postelection crackdown last year. Many of the detainees seem to have remained defiant, despite the conditions they are facing. How do you explain that?
Currently, the systematic torture I witnessed in the 1980s is being repeated in different forms. Crushing the prisoners remains the goal, but because the prisoners belong to a social movement they manage to crush [only] some of them. But we see that most of those who were arrested have resisted and their voices are being heard outside the prison. And we see that our women, journalists, and our youth are bravely standing against the interrogators. They remain faithful to their views, despite the torture and difficult conditions they're facing.
This is very good news. When the resistance breaks the cells of the prison, it means that a bright future is very close.
Green Movement supporters raise flags with the slogan “We Are Countless” during postelection protests in 2009.RFE/RL: I want to go back to your torturer, "Brother Hamid," whom you identify as Naser Sarmadi Parsa. You say you later found out, upon seeing his picture, that he had become Iran's ambassador to Tajikistan. Do you know whether he still has a government job and would you send him your book if you knew his address?
After I talked about him on Voice of America television and showed pictures of him, he was removed from his post. I don't know what he's doing now. I want very much for the book to get to him. The book is in English but its Farsi version will soon hit the market. I actually think that in the system of [the Islamic republic] he will somehow receive it. I hope he will read the book and recall those days and at least decide that he will not torture anyone from now on. RFE/RL: You sound optimistic about the future of Iran and the Green opposition movement, despite the crackdown that put an end to street protests. You have said you believe a bright future is near. Please tell us the reasons for your optimism.
It might appear on the surface that the establishment has managed to stop the movement or extinguish it, but I don't think it's the case. This movement is deep-rooted in Iranian society, in Iran's middle class, among Iran's women and youth. Sooner or later, we will see that this will rise as fire under the ashes and will affect the destiny of Iran.
You cannot kill a social movement; it can be limited, stopped, or delayed, but you can't wipe out a movement because it has a social base. Based on the official figures released by the Iranian government after last year's [presidential vote], 13 million people voted for [defeated opposition presidential candidate] Mir Hossein Musavi. What happened to the 13 million people? They weren't all arrested or killed; they're still in the society. Also, the government said 13 million. I'm sure the real figure is much higher. They will learn new ways of resistance and fighting and they will have an impact.
Last week, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards said publicly that some members of the Guard support the Green Movement. Therefore, when a movement has become so widespread that it even has supporters within the IRGC , how can it be eliminated? It can be stopped, but it definitely hasn't been wiped out.