by TARA MAHTAFAR in Tehran
08 Jul 2009 17:36
Dispatch from Tehran
I was arrested walking home in the immediate aftermath of the election at a busy square in the city center. Chaos reigned: chants, stones, batons, teargas.
I felt a heavy slap land on my shoulder. Briefly, the thought of a close friend with a misplaced sense of humor came to mind. Turning, a black-helmeted riot guard towered over me: "You're the one who gave my soldier a black eye!"
In total shock, I stammered I was not a protester, but the club descended nonetheless as I was dragged and shoved into a bus.
Over the next hours I witnessed scenes of extreme violence as we drove through fire-barricaded streets; one young man had his head bashed open. Soon he was lying on the seat next to me; everyone was in panic to stop the gushing blood.
Sometime near dawn, I found myself in another vehicle speeding along an expressway on a northwest stretch of the capital. I dialed my mother on my mobile, finally knowing where we were headed -- sure enough, our exit sign read EVIN.
The infamous prison -- Iran's Guantanamo -- opened its monolithic electric gate to swallow us ... as everyone who enters it fears: indefinitely.
What struck me upon entry to Evin was the green lushness of its grounds. Sort of a ['God-given'] bounty, considering its location in Tehran's hilly Darake area. It was disarmingly landscaped. The sprawling compound was a city in itself, of walls within walls.
After mug shots, fingerprinting, and the body search, I exchanged my cellphone and wallet for a kit containing a washcloth, t-shirt, and pair of briefs. A guard led a group of us down a corridor, checking cells to see which had room. Finally, he herded us into a ten-by-ten meter cell. Drained, I collapsed on the thinly-carpeted floor with an army blanket, and slept.
I woke up when they started serving lunch. Rice-and-stew of suspicious origin, yogurt, and weak tea in a plastic cup. It was served with the day's Etelaat, a state-run newspaper. I ate the yogurt and did the Sudoku puzzle.
This was meant to be "solitary" confinement, by the way, as a prelude to one's interrogation. But apparently there were no solitary cells left. My interrogation was put off for days. That's how busy Evin was, with the influx of arrests.
On Day 2, I was transferred to "The Quarantine," a chamber with high ceilings and rows of bunks. Initially we were about 700 people, all of whom has been arrested in the past 48 hours. More came and went, came and went; it was a zoo. I must have seen a thousand pass before my eyes in those first days.
We slept two per bed, the dozens bunks all filled. Others, blanket-sharing trios, covered the floor. (One blanket spread underneath, one on top, one rolled as a pillow.) Our meals grew more meager as the stream of entrants continued.
They arrived in packs, with news from the outside that was always a day or two old, due to the "time in solitary" delay. I heard what was happening on the streets, and it filled me both with dismay and fierce hope. The worse it got, the less likely I'd be freed soon. Yet, how could I not be overjoyed to learn about the continued resistance?
Blindfolded, I sat one-on-one with my interrogator; the space seemed to be shared by other interrogators and prisoners, a few feet away.
His voice was soft and affable. "Tell me about yourself."
Almost like a shrink, he had me skim through my life story, from preschool up to the time and place I was arrested. Then he asked about my "political alignment."
I replied I had none.
"Who did you vote for?" Then: "Why did you vote for Mousavi? Do you believe the elections were rigged? Who do you think is responsible for the riots?"
The barrage of questions came out of multiple interrogators in multiple interrogation sessions for the next week.
There was even a good cop, bad cop routine. That night, the blind dark rang with the bloodcurdling sounds of torture. I never learned if this was a recording played to terrify me, or real.
Another time, the get-out-of-jail card was dangled. I could walk if I agreed to appear on television and give a scripted confession of propagating "vandalism."
I replied, "But I did not throw rocks. I did not break car windows or set fire to banks." I ventured further. "Most of the people I've seen here are innocent."
"Our intelligence agency does not bring innocents here. We have files."
"Why am I here?" I challenged.
He was mute.
I won't say I wasn't roughed up during these sessions, but I wasn't tortured like the political heavyweights in notoriously sinister Ward 209.
In the general ward where we resided, however, I was witness to the sobering experiences of some of my cellmates.
One man in his thirties told me he got a thorough thrashing -- while blindfolded -- during his interrogation. "There was a young guy in there with me," he said. "His voice was youthful. He was brought in because he knifed a basiji. They had no pity on him. They beat him until he'd pass out, then doused his head in water so he'd regain consciousness. Then knock him out again. The fourth time he wasn't revived by the water. I heard one guy tell another to check his breath, his pulse. He was dead. They were calm about it; the poor kid's body was removed from the room."
Some instances of savage brutality I saw myself. This was a working-class man from the fleet of Tehran's indispensable motorbike couriers. His route had taken him through an intersection with street unrest. The police/militia were striking indiscriminately. Riding his bike, the courier's elbow was sliced by a qama (a longish blade akin to a short sword); the wound gaping open was a painful sight. An actual demonstrator, chased down in protests in front of Majlis, had broken ribs and an arm in a cast. The norm for all who came in was bruises and scars, but some had graver injuries.
I was lucky. As a passerby, I had nothing to hide or tell. The general ward was teeming with guys like me or street protesters at worst. None of us saw the underbelly of Evin, where the politicos reportedly go under proper torture (water-boarding, electric shock, etc.). I hope no one has to see such a thing.
I was released in two and a half weeks. My detainment was an episode I won't soon forget, and the judiciary process is my souvenir.
I'm not 'free and clear' quite yet. For bail I had to leave our house deeds as collateral. My trial date is not set, but I'll be going up for a "suspended sentence" of serving three months on charges of "acts against national security" (standard Islamic Republic-speak for any whiff of civil activism).
Now home, my daily life is unaltered -- except that is for the deep sense of paranoia crawling under my skin, of being under surveillance. Evin looms over me on the telephone, on the internet, everywhere I go and with whomever I meet. Perhaps I'm overreacting. But Evin was certainly a lesson in how the regime arbitrarily exercises its power in the current atmosphere.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau