Accessibility links

Breaking News

'He Turned Prisons Into Hell': Death Of Notorious Ex-Warden Triggers Allegations Of Past Abuse

Iranian writer Monireh Baradaran called Davoud Rahmani's death notice an attempt to “normalize” the notorious former prison chief.

When notorious former Iranian prison chief Davoud Rahmani died last week, his family described him as a man who exhibited “good character and kindness.”

But prisoners who served time in Iran’s Ghezel-Hesar prison in the 1980s recalled a ruthless warden who oversaw the widespread use of torture.

Rahmani, also known as Haj Davoud, was known among inmates for innovating a torture technique known as the "coffin."

His job was to turn prisons into hell [and] force prisoners to recant their beliefs."
-- Roya Boroumand, human rights defender

The 76-year-old’s death, which was announced on October 20, triggered a flurry of new allegations of abuse by Iranians who served time in Ghezel-Hesar prison from 1981-84.

Rahmani’s stint as prison chief coincided with a purge of leftists following the Islamic Revolution in 1979 when Islamists were attempting to consolidate power.

Former prisoners described Rahmani as an uneducated man who personally tortured inmates to force them to publicly renounce their political beliefs.

'Your Whole Being Falls Apart'

Canada-based researcher Shokoufeh Sakhi was 18 years old when she was sent to Ghezel-Hesar prison, about 20 kilometers northwest of Tehran. She said she endured nine months of the “coffin” torture technique.

Sakhi said inmates were blindfolded and forced to sit or lie down in absolute silence and isolation in a small space partitioned by sheets of plywood. The prisoners, she said, were then subjected to complete sensory deprivation, a form of psychological torture.

Ghezel-Hesar Prison
Ghezel-Hesar Prison

Rahmani, she said, had called the technique “a machine” that would transform the inmates and make them renounce their political beliefs.

“The whole time when you’re in these coffins, not only are you separated from [other prisoners] but you are also isolated as a human being,” Sakhi said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

“Your five senses are being limited and you’re being held in a very draining situation where your whole being gradually falls apart,” Sakhi added.

Sakhi said while she was tortured she could not even remember the faces of her mother or her only child.

'Constantly Flogged'

Monireh Baradaran
Monireh Baradaran

Iranian writer Monireh Baradaran, a former left-wing activist, was incarcerated in Ghezel-Hesar prison in 1982. She said Rahmani verbally abused, beat up, and flogged inmates. In some cases, Rahmani forced prisoners to stand for more 30 hours, she said.

“These were the common methods of torture under Haj [Davoud],” she wrote in an editorial for Radio Zamaneh, a Persian-language broadcaster based in The Netherlands.

Baradaran also recalled that dozen of prisoners from her ward in Ghezel-Hesar prison were kept for months in a prison toilet, where she said they were “constantly flogged.”

Baradaran said she was infuriated by the death notice issued by Rahmani’s family. She called the notice, which was accompanied by a photo of a serene-looking Rahmani, an attempt to “normalize” him.

'Appaling Crimes'

Roya Boroumand, a Washington-based human rights defender, told RFE/RL that Rahmani's mandate was ideological.

“His job was to turn prisons into hell [and] force prisoners to recant their beliefs,” said Boroumand, co-founder of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, which promotes human rights in Iran.

“For former prisoners, his name is associated with humiliation and arbitrary punishments, including confinement in 'graves' or cardboard boxes where prisoners were held for days,” she said.

Rahmani worked as a blacksmith before joining the ranks of the Islamist revolutionaries in 1979. He later worked as an assistant to Assadollah Lajevardi, a prosecutor and warden of Evin prison, Iran’s most notorious. Lajevardi was nicknamed the “Butcher Of Evin.”

Lajevardi promoted Rahmani to Ghezel-Hesar prison chief. The latter was removed from his position in 1984 amid allegations of torture.

Lajevardi defended Rahmani as a “revolutionary” who was fired despite his “abundant ability.” Some media reports suggested that Rahmani returned to his former job at Evin prison after he was sacked.

Rahmani’s alleged victims regret that he never faced justice.

“The fact that he died without being held accountable for his appalling crimes is very unfortunate for thousands of political prisoners who were dehumanized and tortured by Haj Davoud, and for society at large,” Boroumand told RFE/RL.

Rahmani’s death came as a former Iranian judiciary official is facing trial in a landmark case in Sweden over his alleged role in the mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

Among the around 5,000 prisoners who were executed were inmates who had been tortured by Rahmani.

Vahid Pourostad of RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this story.