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Iran Report: January 29, 2008

Iran: Nightmares Of Evin Prison Haunt Freed Filmmaker

By Toumaj Tahbaz

Mehrnoushe Solouki filming in Tehran in 2005, which appears in her film "The Evil and the Good"

Night after night, from her cell in solitary confinement, Mehrnoushe Solouki could hear the anguished crying of fellow inmates in Tehran's Evin prison. When the French-Iranian filmmaker asked her guards about it, they were clear: The cries were not from hardened criminals but female activists, artists, and intellectuals locked up for nothing more than their political beliefs.

Since January 18, Solouki has been back in Paris, safe in the warm embrace of family and friends -- and far from Evin prison. Yet it still haunts her.

A doctoral film student at Canada’s University of Quebec, Solouki traveled to Tehran in late 2006 to research a documentary about the burial rites of Iran’s religious minorities. But when she accidentally stumbled upon a mass grave of regime opponents summarily executed in 1988, she was quickly thrown in prison.

It was February 19, 2007.

"I was leaving the office of my colleague when five plainclothes agents, who seemed to be armed, stopped me," Solouki says. "From that moment on, my life totally changed."

Solouki went on to spend a month at Evin in solitary confinement, before her release on a bail of 85,000 euros ($124,000) posted by her parents in France, at the risk of losing their own house.

But authorities had confiscated the 39-year-old filmmaker's passport. Unable to leave, she waited months for her trial in November on charges that included making antigovernment propaganda and endangering national security. At the trial, she was fined around $2,000 for her activities.

The French Foreign Ministry has not provided any details about her case. But a website set up by supporters ( claims she was acquitted last week and allowed to leave Iran.

'So Many Students, Intellectuals, And Activists'

In July, an unknown assailant in Tehran attacked Solouki. Her facial injuries required four separate operations. But while still in pain from the surgeries, she tells Radio Farda that what's most haunting now are the memories of her imprisonment.

"I heard the cries and yelling of other women prisoners," she says. "I thought that they were terrorists, but when I asked about it, the answer was that they were women activists arrested during the ceremony of March 8 [International Women's Day]. I couldn't tell whether this answer was tragic or comic."

But tragic seems to best describe Evin, which includes a much-feared wing that is thought to be run by Iran's secret services. In recent months, the prison's ranks have swelled with students, women's rights activists, journalists, and others amid a fierce crackdown on dissent by the Iranian government.

"I have heard some things about Guantanamo Bay -- that terrorists are kept there," Solouki says. "But I can’t believe there could be a place in the world with so many students, intellectuals, writers, and women's rights activists [as Evin prison]."

Stumbling On Unofficial History

Solouki has always denied the charges against her, saying that her documentary had not yet been filmed at the time of her arrest and that none of the equipment seized from her gave any indication of the film's content.

She was granted a research license by the Iranian Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance to film a documentary on the burial traditions of religious-minority communities such as Armenian Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. She says the authorities had prior knowledge of her planned activities, such as the locations where she wanted to film, including a particular cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran.

Not just any cemetery, however. Solouki, in doing her research, was suddenly captivated by an area at the Khavaran Cemetery. She describes it as "totally different" from the other areas where she had been filming. That's because the cemetery reportedly contains a mass grave of regime opponents executed in the summer and fall of 1988.

How many people were buried there has never been established. However, estimates generally point to more than 2,800 killed, with their bodies buried in different areas around the country, not just at Khavaran Cemetery. Most were opposition leftists and mujahedin members taken from jail and summarily executed. Solouki says authorities may have believed that she intended to make a film critical of the executions.

"When I came across that reality, I couldn't turn off my camera," she says. "This is apparently part of Iran's history, but later I had a talk with professor Aghajari, who teaches at the Tarbiat Modaress University. He said, 'No, this is not part of Iran's history, and this has not entered Iran's history.'"

Solouki says the academic "even warned me that anyone who researched that part of Iran's past -- not history -- would be persecuted, because it is likely that bringing up this case, the Khavaran case -- would take Iran and those in power who were involved to international courts."

During her ordeal, Solouki says she often felt her life to be endangered, and even briefly sought refuge at the French Embassy in Tehran. But in the end, she was fortunate.

Unlike Zahra Kazemi, a 54-year-old Iranian-Canadian photographer who was beaten to death at Ervin prison in 2003, Solouki has survived. Now, she plans to make a film about her story, to tell the world about what she endured inside Evin prison -- and what scores of dissidents continue to suffer there daily.

(Toumaj Tahbaz is a correspondent with Radio Farda)

Detained Iranian Student Dies Under 'Suspicious' Circumstances

By Golnaz Esfandiari

It was still unclear why authorities detained Ebrahim Lotfollahi

An Iranian student detained in the capital of Iran's Kurdistan Province has died in prison under circumstances described by his family and human rights activists as "suspicious," Radio Farda reported.

On January 15, nine days after Ebrahim Lotfollahi was detained in front of Payame Nur University in the provincial capital, Sanandaj, officials told his family that he had committed suicide while in prison and died of "suffocation."

It is unclear why Lotfollahi was detained in the first place.

Witnesses say he had just finished taking an exam when security officials took him away. Officials were reported as saying they wanted to give him some "explanations," but no more details were offered.

His family says the aspiring lawyer had no reason to take his own life. Ebrahim, they say, was full of "hope in life" -- an avid reader who served part-time as a social worker.

His brother, Ismail, told Radio Farda that Ebrahim was "well" when he last saw him, two days after his arrest. "He said he would be released," Ismail said. "He said he needed a few razors and some other things."

Officials said Lotfollahi has already been buried at the city's Beheshte Mohammadi Cemetery.

But Ismail Lotfollahi says family members, who were not allowed to see the body, are calling for an autopsy. "Nobody has seen the body, [but] they said he's there," Ismail said. "A few days after they buried him there, they covered the grave with concrete."

"We don't know what to do. We haven't seen his body; we don't know whether he was suffocated," he said. "They had taken him there and done everything -- we were informed about nothing."

Saman Rasulpour, a Sanandaj-based journalist and member of the Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan, said Lotfollahi's death and the conditions surrounding it are unprecedented in the region.

But he added that this case appears similar to that of another student: Zahra Bani Yaghoub, a 27-year-old who died in prison in the western city of Hamedan in October shortly after she was detained by the morality police while out for a stroll with her boyfriend.

In Yaghoub's case, officials also said that she committed suicide, but her family accused the police of murdering her. They said her body was bruised and that there was blood in her ears.

Bani Yaghub's family and human rights advocates including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi have also called for an autopsy in her case. But some observers say there is little chance officials will grant it.

Lotfollahi's family has insisted, however, that they will pursue the case and push for an autopsy. They say officials are responsible for the student's death in prison.

The news of Lotfollahi's death was made public only on January 17, but Rasulpour said it has already led to concern among rights advocates and civil society activists in the region.

Rasulpour told Radio Farda that his organization is supporting Lotfollahi's family in its pursuit of the truth. "We will first try to find a lawyer for this family, which is a very innocent and poor family, to pursue the case through legal channels," Rasulpour said. "This is a suspicious death for us human rights activists, and security forces were responsible for his life and they have to give answers."

The deaths in prison of Lotfollahi and Bani Yaghoub bear similarities to the 2003 unsolved death in prison of Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi. Kazemi had been arrested for taking pictures of families of political prisoners in front of Tehran's notorious Evin prison. A few days later, Kazemi died of a brain hemorrhage after being transferred to a hospital.

Officials first said she had died of a stroke before later saying her head had hit a hard object and led to her death. Reports suggested she had been beaten in prison and received head injuries during interrogations.

Some five years after her death, no one has been held responsible and her case was recently sent to an appeal court for further review, although her family has said it has little confidence that Iranian justice will punish those responsible.