TOPICS > Politics

In Iran, Fear Grows Over Treatment of Arrested Election Demonstrators

July 29, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Margaret Warner updates the political situation in Iran, where concerns are growing about the treatment of demonstrators arrested after the disputed election.

GWEN IFILL: And still to come on the NewsHour tonight: “Bernanke On the Record”; and Elvis Costello, restless rocker.

But first, we turn to the international controversy over allegations of deaths and torture in Iran’s prisons. Today, Secretary of State Clinton said she deplored the reports of abuse, and she urged the release of political prisoners.

Margaret Warner has more on that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Iran’s rulers cracked down hard last month when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators challenged what they said was a rigged presidential election. There were beatings and shootings in the streets, and police and militia arrested and jailed thousands of protestors.

Now new controversy has arisen over what happened to the people who were detained. Their families have been demonstrating at the gates of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, as seen in this YouTube video.

The protests were sparked by stories of prison abuse and killings that have leaked out on Iranian opposition Web sites. Robert Worth of the New York Times has been reporting the story.

ROBERT WORTH: There are people who have been in these prisons who’ve said they watched others being beaten to death, other people who say they saw people, you know, with officers stepping on their necks being forced to lick toilet bowls, other people who talk about just being beaten up physically, having great pressure put on them to confess to having plotted a coup or plotted a revolution.

One woman said that she was pressured to say that she had sex with political figures. And, again, when they leave the prisons, sometimes they are forced to sign something saying, “I will not tell anyone that I was mistreated. I will say that I was treated just fine.”

Released Detainees Talk

Robert Worth
The New York Times
A lot of conservative lawmakers in the past couple of days have been loudly complaining about [abuse] and saying that, you know, to them this really brings this home.

MARGARET WARNER: Other detainees who were released and fled Iran are also talking, like this man interviewed by Britain's ITN. His appearance and name were disguised for security reasons.

"JAVAD," former prisoner: They start to hit me with the baton, with the cable. They started slapping my face. After, they asked me. I said, "I haven't done anything. Please don't hit me."

MARGARET WARNER: One case in particular sparked a backlash, that of 25-year-old Mohsen Rouholamini, the son of a prominent conservative, whose battered body was returned to his family last week.

ROBERT WORTH: It turned out to be a very big moment, especially important when you have the son of this conservative who appears to have been beaten to death in prison. And his father, again, is very close to Mohsen Rezaei, who is a former Revolutionary Guards commander.

And he's close to a lot of other conservatives. A lot of conservative lawmakers in the past couple of days have been loudly complaining about this and saying that, you know, to them this really brings this home.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Robert, how serious is the political fallout?

ROBERT WORTH: Well, it seems to have grown more serious by the day. Again, it's in part because conservatives have been brought into this.

MARGARET WARNER: There have been allegations of prisoner torture and murder for decades in Iran without sparking this kind of reaction. What's different this time?

Serious Internal Dissent

Robert Worth
The New York Times
Most people agree that what's happened over the past six or seven weeks is the most serious internal dissent since the revolution.

ROBERT WORTH: Well, most people agree that what's happened over the past six or seven weeks is the most serious internal dissent since the revolution. I mean, the numbers of peoples in the streets, the seriousness of the allegations.

It's true that there's been allegations of torture for a long time. And then, for that matter, under the Shah. You know, Savak was notorious for torture in prison, and many people died that way.

But I think, in this time, what you have is a political crisis, the context of a political crisis that's so serious, and in which now, you know, all of a sudden, in the past sort of week or 10 days, you have a president who is again vulnerable to fellow conservatives.

That was true before the election. Ahmadinejad had a lot of rivals inside the conservative movement, but that's been brought back to life. And so suddenly, in that context, when you have all of a sudden accusations of serious abuse inside prisons, this context, I think, gives it new life.

And it's worth adding here also that some very senior ayatollahs in the past couple of days have made very, very serious accusations about this and said, you know, this prison issue needs to be addressed very soon.

MARGARET WARNER: And they are all raising the fundamental question of accountability?

ROBERT WORTH: That's right. That's right. For instance, one conservative lawmaker said yesterday that police are telling us they don't know where these detainees are. The intelligence ministry is telling us they don't know where the detainees are.

And there's a clear implication here, unstated, but other people are willing to come out and say, that the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia are the ones who are handling this. And I think some lawmakers feel that they don't have a sense of what's going on in those organizations, and they want to know more.

Iranian Government Responds

MARGARET WARNER: The government has taken steps to respond. Early this week, Supreme Leader Khamenei ordered one detention center closed. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged that "Islamic mercy" be shown to the detainees. And the government said yesterday 140 prisoners will be released.

KAZEM JALILI, spokesman, Parliamentary Committee for Prisons (through translator): After the release, some 200 detainees will still be in prison. And according to the judiciary report, there are documents to show the involvement of some of these 200 detainees in the recent unrest in Tehran.

MARGARET WARNER: The regime has announced that trials for 20 of those would begin this weekend. Opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi, who claims to have won the presidential election, called the whole episode an outrage.

MIR HUSSEIN MOUSAVI, Opposition Leader (through translator): We've never witnessed anything like this, even before the revolution, never seen anything like it. How can someone who supports the revolution, supports his country, who supports Islam, or even someone who's done wrong go to prison and come out as a corpse? Don't we speak of justice in Islam?

MARGARET WARNER: Opposition leaders have called for a mass mourning ceremony tomorrow. It's the 40th day after a young demonstrator, Neda Agha-Soltan, was shot to death. The video of her killing became a worldwide symbol of the post-election crackdown. It's not clear if tomorrow's gathering will take place, since Iranian authorities refused to grant permission for it.