More than 2,000 Iranian prisoners were freed in early November after receiving an amnesty from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is traditional to grant such amnesties on religious holidays -- it was Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan -- and other significant events.
Such events get a great deal of publicity in Iran, and they are touted as examples of an inherently merciful justice system that is based on Islam. In fact, the majority of individuals released on such occasions were imprisoned for relatively minor offenses such as writing bad checks. The Iranian penal system also deals with tens of thousands of individuals arrested for narcotics-related offenses -- smuggling, dealing, or abuse -- as well as the usual panoply of violent criminals, including murderers and rapists.
The country's prisons hold 132,564 inmates, Iranian Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said on 26 July. Political prisoners and juvenile offenders are often housed with these criminals, partly in an effort to break them, but also because the legal system does not distinguish between types of crimes.
Journalist Akbar Ganji, attorney Abdolfattah Soltani, and student activist Ali Afshari are in jail for, respectively, exposing the corruption and hypocrisy within the regime, defending dissidents, or participating in events that embarrass the government. But these political prisoners are held together with regular criminals.
Iranian dissident Mohsen Sazegara, who was imprisoned in early 2003 and who is now a fellow at Yale University, said in a recent RFE/RL interview that it is a common practice to place political prisoners and juveniles with regular criminals. Sazegara said this is extremely dangerous, and he cited a conversation he had with Akbar Ganji in November 2003, when he was on temporary leave.
According to Sazegara, Ganji told him in a conversation in November 2003 that Ganji was pressured by the prosecutor -- Judge Said Mortazavi -- to renounce his "Republican Manifesto," which criticizes the Iranian system of Islamic government and the supreme leader. When Ganji refused to comply, he was sent to a cell with regular criminals. Ganji said the other inmates treated him respectfully, but the situation was difficult. The prisoners' smoking cigarettes and narcotics affected Ganji's asthma adversely, and the noise in the cell was so bad that Ganji could not read or rest without interruption.
Ganji told Sazegara that one day, during the short recess in the prison yard, he saw a death-row inmate trying to cut a juvenile's throat. The young man escaped with a minor injury. Ganji learned that a prison gang instigated the attack, because death-row inmates enter lengthy new trial processes if they commit another crime, and this will delay their execution.
Sazegara sees the psychological consequences of mixing political prisoners with criminals as particularly troubling. A young political activist, Sazegara said, typically has a very "sensitive soul." Forcing these people to live under such humiliating conditions is a powerful tool in the hands of the regime, one it uses to break down opponents.
It is not just political prisoners who endure such dangers, according to Sazegara. Individuals jailed for bouncing checks or financial fraud are housed with murderers, and the associated pressures can turn the prisoner into a hardened criminal. Sazegara believes that prison management is one of the most primitive and underdeveloped components of the Iranian judicial system, and he ascribed this to officials associated with a traditional conservative political group called the Islamic Coalition Party (Hezb-i Motalefeh).
Rape And Murder
A 17-year-old male was raped and killed by five inmates in the Adelabad prison in Shiraz on 19 November, the Baztab website reported. The young man was imprisoned for a minor crime and had been transferred to a cell with adult criminals -- some of them convicted murderers -- because the juvenile section was closed for a research project. Baztab reported that this was the third such case in the Shiraz prison this autumn. Baztab reported that the killers confessed to their crime but the prison's public-relations office tried to downplay the case as a quarrel among inmates.
Human rights activist and lawyer Mehrangiz Kar told Radio Farda on 20 November that prison guidelines call for classification of prisoners by age, crime, background, and record. Kar said the teenager's murder reveals serious flaws in the country's judicial system. The law, Kar said, treats girls as young as nine and boys as young as 15 as adults.
Supreme Court Judge Bahram Bahrami condemned the Adelabad case, Baztab reported. He said that the proper classification of prisoners has been implemented in only four prisons in Tehran.
Rajai Shahr prison, which is on the outskirts of the city of Karaj, is notorious for housing all types of inmates together. Sadegh Naghashkar, spokesman for an organization defending political prisoners, told Radio Farda on 15 November that three inmates at that prison are protesting the situation. Cultural activist Assad Shaghaghi, Democratic Party of Iran member Behruz Javid-Tehrani, and Ahvazi-Arab activist Khalid Hardani have started a hunger strike because they are housed with rapists and murderers and fear for their lives.
No Political Prisoners
Iranian officials' statements about the imprisonment of individuals for their political activities suggest that the situation will not change soon because it is not taken seriously. State Prosecutor-General, Hojatoleslam Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, said recently that there are very few political prisoners in Iran, "Mardom Salari" reported on 24 November. His subsequent dismissive comments indicate that individuals imprisoned for their political activities should not expect improvements.
"A certain lady passed away in an incident in our country," Dori-Najafabadi said. "Well, no one was happy about this. But you must have noticed how the Canadians blew the case out of proportion for the sake of their own problems."
Dori-Najafabadi was referring to the summer 2003 case of Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, who was arrested for taking photographs outside Evin prison. She subsequently died of head injuries suffered while in custody. Nobody has been punished for administering the fatal beating.
"And there was the case of a certain gentleman who was at the hospital and created all that fanfare," Dori-Najafabadi continued. He was referring to the case of Ganji, who has been imprisoned for almost six years and who recently ended a lengthy hunger strike.
In June 2004, Ali Akbar Yasaqi, the new Prisons and Corrections Organization chief, said there are no political prisoners in the country. "I positively stress there are no political prisoners in Iranian prisons," he said. Yasaqi explained that this is because parliament has not passed legislation defining political crimes.