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Iran Report: January 22, 2001

22 January 2001, Volume 4, Number 3

UNKNOWN PRISONS AND IRAN'S 'DIRTY WAR.' Iran's Prisons, Security, and Correction Organization head Seyyed Mahmud Bakhtiari said that prisons in his country currently suffer from serious overcrowding and they are rife with disease, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis B and C, IRNA reported on 14 January. In recent months there have been parliamentary inspections of the prisons and proposals on how to address problems in the penal system.

Bakhtiari's powers, however, only extend to a relatively small number of Iran's penitentiaries -- which he said house about 158,000 people. Recent news about the existence of "unofficial" prisons, about torture of dissidents, and about "disappearances" bring to mind the 1970s "Dirty War" in Argentina, and it underlines persistent complaints about human rights abuses and clandestine centers of power in the Islamic Republic.

Speaking during a parliamentary prison tour, MP Ali Akbar Musavi-Khoiniha noted that the parliamentarians intended to prepare a report after inspecting Evin and Qasr Prisons. But then they "discovered four new prisons," "Iran" reported on 23 October, so their inspections would continue. Musavi-Khoiniha stated that after inspecting a number of the facilities in Tehran, it was unclear who actually ran them, IRNA reported on 8 January. Khoiniha said that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security ran the Tohid Prison and unit 209 of Evin Prison. Other confinement facilities were run by the Law Enforcement Forces, LEF precincts, the Armed Forces Judicial Organization (AFJO), the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, the Judiciary, and the Revolutionary Courts. The commission was not permitted to visit the facility that holds the men who tried to kill Said Hajjarian in March 2000.

Political activist Taqi Rahmani, who spent many years in Iran's prisons, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the illegal existence of these "unknown" prisons demonstrates that there are various power centers in the country. Rahmani said that the parliament needs the power to shut them down. Journalist Parviz Safari told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the parliamentary investigation is encouraging, but the judiciary should have acted against the unknown prisons more rapidly. For that matter, he asked, who permitted these unofficial prisons to exist and who ran them?

Lawyer Ahmad Bashiri agreed that these unofficial prisons are illegal, and he told RFE/RL's Persian Service that it is shocking that in some cases nobody knows who runs these facilities. A prisoner in such a place inevitably has his rights violated, Bashiri warned. Physical and psychological torture is one of the common violations of an individual's rights in Iranian prisons.

The Iranian Constitution's Article 38 bans torture, and in 1982, Father of the Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued "eight articles" that also touched on the issue. Allegations of torture in the prisons cropped up last November during Akbar Ganji's trial, when he stripped in the courtroom to show the judge extensive bruising he had suffered in repeated beatings. Ganji subsequently called on President Mohammad Khatami to investigate his case, IRNA reported on 12 November. Other prisoners, such as Emadedin Baqi, Latif Safari, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, and Ahmad Zeydabadi told visiting parliamentarians that efforts had been made to force them to sign confessions, "Hambastegi" reported.

The parliamentary investigation's report noted that it found extensive corroboration of Ganji's claims that his guards tortured him, IRNA reported on 24 December. On the other hand, parliamentarian Mohammad Kazemi denied that torture occurred in the prisons, although he agreed that they were overcrowded and under-funded, "Tehran Times" reported on 26 December.

Khoiniha noted after visiting the AFJO's Heshmatieh Prison that the facility housed some 1,400 military prisoners, and he described reports that at times up to three prisoners were kept in one solitary confinement cell. He went on to say that in 1994 the Supreme Leader had decreed that 10 days should be reduced from a prisoner's sentence for each day he served in solitary confinement, but this decree had not been acted on yet, "Hambastegi" reported in September.

Torture in Iran is not isolated to the hard-line crackdown of recent months. Tehran municipal officials were tortured by Brigadier General Naqdi's counter-intelligence officers during the investigation of Tehran Mayor Gholam Hussein Karbaschi's embezzlement case in 1998. Said Emami, the supposed ringleader in the serial murders case, allegedly was tortured too before he reportedly killed himself in 1999. Students arrested in July 1999 in Tehran and Tabriz say they were tortured, too, and some were forced to make televised confessions.

Hard-liners say allegations about torture exaggerate the problem. National religious activist Mohammad Maleki took exception to this skeptical tone in the 22 May 1999 "Iran-i Farda." He asked if the following acts were not torture: "Beating a prisoner with wires," "Hanging up a prisoner with his handcuffs like the cadaver of an animal," "Keeping a prisoner blindfolded and tied up in front of a wall for 24 hours," "Depriving the prisoners of fresh air for months on end," "Keeping the accused for many days in the frightful cells of [unit] 209," repeated beatings that result in permanent injury, preventing prisoners' performance of religious ablutions, the threat of execution, and forced deprivation of sleep.

There also were instances of favoritism. Khoiniha noted that Morteza Rafiqdust, brother of the former Oppressed and Disabled Foundation chief Mohsen Rafiqdust, is allowed to leave the prison (Morteza was convicted for embezzling several billion rials; his cohort was executed while Morteza received a life sentence.)

In additon, there have been disappearances, most notably of the 80-100 people who many Iranians think should be part of the "serial murders" trial. But there have been others. For example, student leader Ali Afshari was collected at Evin Prison on 3 January to attend a hearing, and he was not heard from again. Tehran Province Justice Department official Abbas Alizadeh denied this, "Hambastegi" reported on 11 January, but he admitted that he did not know where Afshari actually was. It is not uncommon, furthermore, for somebody to be held incommunicado for a long time after being arrested or responding to a summons.

Several proposals have been made concerning Iranian prisons. Khoiniha said the parliamentarians hope to have all the facilities come under the umbrella of the Prisons Organization. Prisons Organization chief Bakhtiari said in late November that the cabinet was considering a plan to modify and sell inner-city prisons. Their populations would be moved to new facilities no closer than 30 kilometers from cities. Bakhtiari described a camp in Khorasan Province that would house up to 5,000 drug traffickers and addicts and let them take part in "obligatory" sports and exercises, according to IRNA. Bakhtiari noted that 3 trillion rials are needed to make Iranian prisons compatible with international standards, while only 110 billion rials have been allocated to the Prisons Organization for construction projects. Earlier in November, Bakhtiari said that 170 prisons would be turned into remand centers, reducing the total number of acknowledged prisons to 60. An open prison which houses 70 convicts and allows them to farm and to breed cattle, fish, and birds, opened near Abarkuh in Yazd Province, IRNA reported on 3 January.

Another way to reduce the prison population is by changing the sentencing guidelines. Judiciary head Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi said in early December that 300 different punishments call for confinement, whereas this is not necessarily compatible with Sharia law. Shahrudi told a group of parliamentarians that incarceration is the least common type of punishment in Islam, adding that it would cost less to use other types of punishment. Rather than imprisonment, some convicts would face execution, amputation, blinding, stoning, or flogging. Two-thirds of the country's prisoners are guilty of drug offenses, followed by bouncing checks and theft. Some believe that individuals imprisoned for writing bad checks should be released so they can attempt to repay their debts, rather than languishing in prison. Indeed, 14 women, most of whom were imprisoned for writing bad checks, were released from a Shiraz jail on 18 September. Shiraz's city hall and the municipal council paid off their debts. (Bill Samii)

ONE CASE, MANY TRIALS. Six months ago, a reformist statement in "Bahar" warned that Iran�s "Power Mafia" -- high-ranking hard-liners with formal and informal access to the instruments of power -- is using pseudo-legal intimidation against the people, putting lawyers on the defensive, fomenting tension, and creating crises. One can ascribe statements about secret cabals to a penchant for conspiracy theories, but the harsh verdicts passed against participants in an April 2000 conference in Berlin could be seen as the most recent in a series of trials designed to protect some of Iran�s top officials.

On 13 January, reformist journalist Akbar Ganji was sentenced to 10 years in prison. After that, he will spend an additional five years in internal exile in Hormozgan Province. At the same time, German Embassy translator Said Sadr is to serve ten years and fellow translator Khalil Rostam-Khani received a nine-year sentence. Student leader Ali Afshari was given a five-year jail sentence, and national religious figure Ezzatollah Sahabi received a four-and-a-half-year sentence. Prominent female attorneys Mehrangiz Kar and Shahla Lahiji received four-year jail sentences. Economist Fariborz Raisdana received a three-year jail sentence, which he is to serve as a five-year suspended sentence. Shahla Sherkat and Khadijeh Haji-Moqaddam were fined, other participants in the conference were acquitted, and several other verdicts are pending. Lawyers for these ten have filed appeals, IRNA reported on 16 January.

These people had attended a conference organized by Germany's Heinrich Boll Foundation that was organized to assess Iran's parliamentary election and the reform movement's future. But the conference was disrupted by Iranian exiles, one of whom stripped naked while a female in short sleeves danced around the room. After a videotape of the conference was broadcast repeatedly by Iranian state television, the arrests began, mostly on charges of "acting against national security."

Attorney Kar also faced charges of bad-hijabi [not dressing appropriately], denying the Islamic necessity of hijab, and agitating against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Kar, who is suffering from breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, said in December that she and Lahiji were prosecuted behind closed doors. Kar continued: "The court for other participants was public and they were able to benefit from the presence of reporters and the press and, generally, public witnesses. We both were denied this privilege."

The harshest sentence, however, was Ganji's. He was given four years of jail for being at the Berlin conference as well as an additional four years for possessing a confidential government bulletin, a year and a half more for insulting the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and another six months for "working against the Islamic system." His real crime, however, may have been his dogged investigation of the serial murders. In articles for and interviews with reformist publications, and eventually in a best-selling book entitled "The Dungeon of the Ghosts," he said that a cabal of high-ranking clerics was behind the murder of about 100 dissidents during Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's presidency (1989-1997). Several trials that preceded this one also have touched on the supposed secret cabal.

The trial of 17 living and one dead Ministry of Intelligence and Security officials for the "serial murders" of four political dissidents and writers can be seen as another one involving the so-called Power Mafia. A verdict is due on 27 January. The trial is being held in camera on national security grounds, but state media reports that all but two of the accused have confessed. There is little public confidence in the conduct of the trial, and it seems unlikely that the full story of the serial murders will come out. As political activist Taqi Rahmani told RFE/RL's Persian Service, "some say that there is no control and ability to confront the perpetrators of these murders." Indeed, observers find it hard to believe that these MOIS officials acted independently and without orders from high-ranking religious figures who would declare that the victims deserved to die.

Another trial that focuses on the existence of a Power Mafia concerns the videotaped confessions of former Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and Ansar-i Hizbullah member Amir Farshad Ebrahimi. Ebrahimi claimed that he and his hard-line cohorts had been encouraged to commit violence and other activities by people who are in some way involved with the Power Mafia, such as Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Ebrahimi received a prison sentence, while Shirin Ebadi and Hojatoleslam Mohsen Rahami, reform-oriented attorneys who have worked on several high-profile cases in the last two years, were barred from practicing law for five years and received suspended prison sentences after being found guilty of defamation and disseminating false information. Others implicated in the case reportedly received suspended sentences. (See "RFE/RL Iran Report," 9 October 2000)

The trial of Law Enforcement Forces for the July 1999 raid at Tehran University may relate to this case, too. Although twenty LEF personnel were in the dock, many Iranian observers wanted to know why the non-uniformed people who attacked the university dormitories were not being tried. People also wanted to know why relatively low-ranking LEF personnel were on trial, rather than the people who gave them the orders. (See "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 July 2000)

Iranians also suspect that the March attempt to assassinate Said Hajjarian was directed by the secret power-wielders (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 April 2000). The men arrested in this case had connections with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and the motorcycle they used was a type only available to the security forces. The Revolutionary Court summoned journalist Emadedin Baqi when he alleged that there was a cover-up in the case that also involved Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi, and after Baqi said that a shadow organization with agents throughout the government was responsible for the Hajjarian shooting. The trial was conducted with remarkable haste, and the accused in this case got relatively light sentences (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 29 May 2000).

Iranians traditionally have been fond of conspiracy theories, as many scholars have observed. And consequently many observers might be inclined to dismiss suggestions about the existence of a cabal if there were only one or two cases with common factors. But when there are as many cases as this, and when they all appear to be part of a common problem, those arguing for a conspiracy or a cover-up appear to have a strong case. (Bill Samii)

NEW MONTAZERI WEBSITE. After his original website was closed (see RFE/RL Iran Report, 8 January 2001), dissident cleric Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi set up a new homepage at original site was closed for distributing a Persian font called ParsNegar, which is copyrighted by Australia's International Systems Consultancy (ISC). ISC withdrew its complaint after reaching an agreement with the website's operators. (Bill Samii)

ZOROASTRIANS ADD THEIR COMPLAINTS. Rostam Gohari, who heads Iran's Zoroastrian Society, which speaks for the 97,000 Zoroastrians in that country, has added his voice to complaints from Iran's religious minorities about official discrimination. Gohari told IRNA on 13 January that "in recent years, no Zoroastrian has been employed by state organizations and the members of the community, having equal terms as others, have been rejected by recruitment officials just because of belonging to a religious minority."

Article 13 of Iran's Constitution says that Zoroastrians are a recognized religious minority, and Zoroastrians have a guaranteed parliamentary seat. But they have now joined other religious minorities in complaining about the difficulties they face in the Islamic Republic. Maurice Motamed, the Jewish representative in parliament, complained about uneven laws in late December, and parliamentarian Jalal Jalalizadeh in late November denounced discrimination against Sunni Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of the Iranian population (see "RFE/RL Iran Report, 25 December 2000 and 8 January 2001). (Bill Samii)

REFUGEE CRACKDOWN INTENSIFIES. General Javad Hamed of the Law Enforcement Forces said on 16 January that all foreign nationals residing in the northern cities of Khorasan Province have been ordered to go home, according to IRNA. He said that they must get out of Chenaran, Quchan, Dargez, Shirvan and Sarakhs by 14 March. 2,100 refugees voluntarily returned to Afghanistan from Gorgan Province, IRNA reported on 16 January. (Bill Samii)

THE WAR'S NOT OVER. Some 20,000 Iranian civilians remain held in Iraq's Ramadiyah Camp, according to the office of Kermanshah Province's governor-general, whose comments were reported in "Jomhuri-yi Islami" on 16 January. An unnamed official in that office explained that "shortly after the start of the Iraqi-imposed war against the Islamic Republic of Iran, these people were rounded up along our country's western and southern border regions and taken to Iraq." All the Iraqi prisoners of war have been released, according to the 9 December "Javan," while over 2,000 Iranians are being held in Iraq.

Prisoners of war are the most intractable issue in Iran-Iraq relations. Each country claims to have repatriated all of them even as it accuses the other of still holding POWs. "For our part we have returned all the Iranian prisoners of war to their country," Iraqi Culture Minister Hammam Abd-al-Khaliq said in an 8 January interview reprinted by Baghdad's official INA news agency. He continued: "But the Iranians to this day hold Iraqi prisoners of war and they refuse to recognize the existence of most of them. ...The POW issue remains unresolved to this day." The International Committee of the Red Cross interviewed about 5,000 Iraqi POWs in Iran who did not wish to be repatriated, according to the 14 April 2000 "RFE/RL Iraq Report."

Brigadier General Abdullah Najafi, who heads Iran's POW and MIA Commission, said that discussions were underway to resolve these issues, IRNA reported on 14 December. Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Riadh al-Qeysi visited Iran on 5 December to discuss POW issues, IRNA reported. POWs and MIAs were discussed during Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's October visit to Iraq, too.

Commander Baqerzadeh, who heads the Missing In Action committee of Iran's Armed Forces General Headquarters, said on 9 January that the bodies of 38 Iranian soldiers and 332 Iraqi soldiers were exchanged in the Shalamcheh area of Khuzestan, Iranian state radio reported on 9 January. The Iranian and Iraqi sides agreed to increase the number of search teams to three, and they also agreed that Iranians buried in Iraq would be exhumed and brought home. Two days earlier, deputy army ground forces commander Second Brigadier General Nabizadeh announced that 7.7 million anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, and unexploded artillery shells have been deactivated in the 700,000 hectares out of 1.8 million hectares of border regions that have been searched. Nabizadeh added that 108 soldiers have died and 487 have been wounded in these efforts, according to state television.

In a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Iranian UN representative Hadi Nejad-Husseinian cited almost 30 Iraqi violations of the cease-fire accord that ended the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, IRNA reported on 16 January. Some of the violations involved the insertion of Iraqi intelligence personnel near Khorramshahr, Iraqi soldiers shooting at their Iranian counterparts, Iraqi attempts to infiltrate Iranian territory, and Mujahedin Khalq Organization infiltrations. Other cease-fire violations involved Iraqi construction near the borders. (Bill Samii)

GUARDIANS MAY NOT APPROVE BUDGET. Parliament began debating the 455 trillion rial budget on 16 January and accepted its basic outlines by the next day, but the Guardians Council, which must approve legislation on the basis of its Islamic compatibility, may not approve the budget because it attempts to cut funding for traditionally conservative and influential institutions. The budget debate is expected to take two weeks.

Isfahan representative Rajabali Mazrui said in early December that the Guardians Council's proposed budget for 2001 was 457 percent higher than its budget for 2000, "Dowran-i Imruz" reported. He explained that it was 5 trillion rials versus a proposed 28.3 trillion rials. Other bodies seeking to increase their budgets include Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and about 30 non-governmental religious organizations.

Subsequent discussions between the Guardians Council and administration officials led to a reduction in its budget request. Jafar Ebadi of the Management and Planning Organization said that the sum that was settled on amounted to 25 percent of the original request, "Dowran-i Imruz" reported on 19 December, and "the government is duty-bound to accept the budget that this organ proposes and include the sum in the annual Budget Bill it formulates."

Guardians Council secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati sent a letter to Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi in which he expressed concern about adjustments to this budget allocation, IRNA reported on 13 January. Jannati wrote that the MPO initially approved a budget of 12 billion rials for some of the Council's functions, but a parliamentary commission had reduced this amount by 40 percent. This would harm the Council's ability to supervise the June presidential election, Jannati wrote. Mr. Elham of the Central Election Supervisory Board explained further that the Guardians Council proposed a 37 billion rial budget for conducting the election, but the government only approved 10 billion rials and the parliament added another 5 billion rials.

Regarding the budget for state radio and television, Mazrui said in December that "the IRIB's budget for the year 2001 has been increased by 22.8 percent, that is, raised to 1.38 trillion rials, as compared with 1.16 trillion rials in 2000." Reduction of the IRIB budget is unpopular with conservatives and hard-liners, too. Natanz representative Ali Baqbanian said reducing the budget was inappropriate, and although IRIB could maintain its current activities, if its coverage is to increase its budget must increase. Yonathan Betkolia, who represents the Assyrian minority, told the 16 January "Jam-i Jam" that during his recent trip to the U.S. he had seen how much Iranians abroad depend on IRIB's international programming. For this reason, he said, he opposed reducing the budget.

The budget�s effort to extend funding to traditional religious institutions also has met opposition. The faithful and followers of specific clerics normally contribute the private donations and religious taxes ("khoms and "zakat") that fund such institutions. Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Fazel-Meybodi warned that "this budget is to be spent to run the seminaries and I do not agree with that, " Reuters reported in late December. Fazel-Meybodi admitted that state funding of religious institutions had increased in recent years.

At this stage, the parliament's final version of the budget appears likely to encounter serious opposition from the Guardians Council. The budget then would be referred to the Expediency Council. And the Expediency Council is headed by two hard-liners who fared badly in the parliamentary election: Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohsen Rezai. For ideological and personal reasons, that conservative body is unlikely to view the budget favorably either, particularly if it remains in its current form. (Bill Samii)

UNEMPLOYMENT, INFLATION CREATE PROBLEMS. Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi warned Ardabil Province clerics on 12 January that unemployment (which is unofficially estimated to be around 25 percent) is causing many societal problems, according to state radio. This is why job creation is a major objective of the budget that is being debated in the parliament. Economist Ali Rashidi predicted that unemployment will increase and by March 2003 6.9 million Iranians will be jobless, IRNA reported on 15 January. The Executive Board of Parliament Joint Commission on Budget said the next day that unemployment would be under 12 percent.

Meanwhile, the Joint Commission and Management and Planning Organization chief Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi predicted a 13-15 percent inflation rate for next year. Jafar Ebadi of the MPO said that although next year's inflation rate was projected to be 17.4 percent, more recent estimates suggest a 14-16 percent inflation rate, "Dowran-i Imruz" reported on 19 December. Ebadi explained discrepancies by saying that "our economic model is formulated on the basis of statistical logic and rationale. However, the problem is that our statistics are not one hundred percent reliable." (Bill Samii)