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Notebook | 16 Days in Evin Prison


25 Jan 2012 22:59Comments
Evin-prision-Tehran1.jpgA journalist reflects on her two weeks of incarceration in the Islamic Republic.

[ feature ] "We've convicted people with thinner files and less evidence," a judge told me on my first morning in Iranian detention.

Pointing to a thick folder, he continued, "You might as well just tell us which American agency you work for."

Ending up in Evin is every Iranian's nightmare. It's not the only prison and detention center in Iran, but it's probably the most infamous.

Horror stories pouring out of Iranian prisons are in no shortage, and cases of torture and rape have been reported by opposition and foreign media, as well as rights groups from the Shah's time and since.

I was in Evin in May after the Syrians (who didn't care for an Al Jazeera journalist reporting the events there) alleged that that I was a spy and forced me onto a flight to Iran. But not before locking me up and interrogating me for a few days in one of their own hell holes -- a secret detention center not far from the Damascus airport.

Those three days in Syria were all blood, screams and cruelty meted out casually to Syrians, with me as a witness.

Despite all of that -- including the 16 days of solitary confinement and interrogation in Evin (after which Iranian authorities released me, saying only that there was "nothing wrong" with my passport) -- it's clear that I am among the fortunate. I have multiple citizenships, so there would be more to answer for in harming me, and the intense social media campaign launched by my high-profile employer, family, multiple rights groups, and network of amazing friends put extra pressure on my captors to free me.

Still, my time in Evin was filled with bewildering moments and glimpses into a taxonomy of those who work within the country's justice system -- from the harsh judge who promised me the worst, to the three women who fretted over what to feed the vegetarian in their charge.

The interrogator

The flight from Damascus to Tehran was probably the closest I've ever come to feeling like I wanted to claw my way out of my own skin.

Watched closely by a minder from the Iranian embassy in Damascus as well as two armed men in the front of the plane, I could scarcely think of what they had in store for me in Tehran. The man sitting next to me -- compact, in his 50s, kept smiling at me with every question I asked him.

"What's going on? What have the Syrians told you?"

"I don't know, but you'll see." Knowing smile.

Oh, the uncertainty. But then, what could he say? I tried to get him to contact my family. I wrote my name in his notebook, along with my family's contacts, begging him to notify Canadian officials that I was in Iranian custody -- I didn't think he'd bother with the Americans.

Again, the same smile.

The next morning, the judge made it quite clear why I was extradited to Iran.

He was a harsh, angry man who spoke through permanently furrowed eyebrows and clenched teeth.

When I entered his office along with my minders, he was shouting at another man.

"You're late, you've kept me waiting, and yet, I see you've had enough time to put gel in your hair and put on cologne. Get out. Don't waste my time."

Terrified and clutching papers, the man scurried away, leaving the judge to focus his attention on me.

I felt sick. I denied being a spy and asked what was in the folder.

"We know everything. You know, we don't need to pretend to get a confession to execute you."

The physical world lost all meaning -- floors, ceilings, and walls faded to black and I felt like I was falling. Struggling, I found my focus but I failed to choke back tears as I continued to deny any wrongdoing, unless, of course, traveling while being Iranian was a crime. After all, I'd traveled to Syria, my Iranian passport was extended, and had even been stamped upon entry by Syrian immigration.

"Why didn't they send me back to Qatar?" I asked.

"If you travel on your Iranian passport we can always bring you back to Iran for any reason. Know this. Now tell us -- you work for the U.S. You were spying. If you just tell us which department you work for, this situation will be resolved faster."

I stood my ground -- there would be no confession. Unmoved by my tears and tired of going in circles with me, the judge ordered me to give my statement to the clerk.

Later that night, I was taken from my cell to see a man referred to as my "case worker" -- a deft interrogator, whose face I wasn't allowed to see. He wouldn't tell me his name and barely spoke above a whisper.

Our first meeting was rough -- others were in the room, and those men stood directly over me as I sat blindfolded. Speaking in menacing tones they issued not-so-subtle threats about what might happen if I didn't confess to working for the U.S. government -- or, worse yet, the Israelis.

But my interrogator was good cop and bad cop in one -- he was formal and tough, never raising his voice nor hand. After putting me through the wringer, he would sometimes offer me hazelnuts and peeled oranges (what an odd setting for Persian hospitality...). I'm certain my treatment -- which seemed by the books -- was the best the Iranian judicial system has to offer.

His questions had a dual purpose: To prompt me to confess to something or to get me to somehow disparage my situation. That was the thing -- we were both participating in a strange theater, he and I, a make-believe world where my interrogator acted as though I had no reason to object to my incarceration and I didn't contradict that narrative. He accepted that I was distressed because I was worried about my family (which was entirely true), but that's about it. Everything else was totally fine. One day, he even asked me if I'd heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed -- as though he didn't know I was in solitary confinement without so much as a pen, let alone WiFi.

(For the record, here's what I had in my cell: Three blankets, a cup, a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, a bar of soap, a towel, a pair of rubber slippers, a headscarf, and a scrap of wallpaper I was to hang out of a vent on the door as a sign that I needed something. Absolutely nothing else.)

He also brought up two previous prisoners more than once -- American Sarah Shourd and Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi, both of whom were accused of spying but ultimately freed.

"They were certainly spies and we let them go. You should tell us everything. What are you worried about? Who have we ever let rot in here?"

The name that hung between us, left unsaid, was that of Iranian Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who was beaten to death in Evin three weeks after being taken into custody in 2003. I'd clipped Kazemi's obituary and had it pinned at my desk for years. My interrogator said he'd been in the job for ten years, so Kazemi was killed during his tenure, although I don't know if he was at Evin then or had anything to do with her case.

"If we free you, you should tell the truth. Ms. Saberi said that we tortured her. We treated her the same way I'm treating you. Am I torturing you?"

"No, not at all," I'd respond, thinking of Kazemi and tearing up. I didn't feel I was being psychologically tortured, although I was certainly in distress, which, I suppose, is the point of being detained and interrogated.

My answers too had a dual aim -- to prove myself a journalist and to confront this man with my humanity while letting him know that I saw him as a person, asking him questions about his life (Did he find his job difficult? How many cases did he handle at once? Did he have any children?), most of which he answered with varying degrees of specificity. He took note of my questions, asking me if I was trying to reverse our roles.

"Sorry -- I'm a reporter. I can't help it," I'd reply. But I wanted to know the man who held my fate in his hands -- if he recommended to the judge that I be charged, it could be months, maybe years, before I'd leave Evin. And that's only if the judge were to spare me from the gallows (four months prior, a Dutch Iranian woman, Zahra Bahrami, had been hanged). I thought of the thousands of Iranians who had sat in that same room before me, bottling up that same feeling of dread, trying to get through another day of interrogations.

There were also surreal moments, when he'd ask me random questions: Why I chose a career over domesticity, why I was a vegetarian, what I thought of the economic inequality in the U.S., and why I wore so much black.

That last question came at the end of a particularly grueling session, in which my claims of innocence were rendered meaningless ("Everyone who sits here says the same thing"). He asked me about the contents of my luggage and wondered about a blood-encrusted blindfold from Syria, asking if it was my blood on it (it wasn't). Then came something out of left field.

"Ms. Parvaz, what's your favorite color?"

Baffled, I replied, "Black."

"Black? Black is not a color," he said.

"But that's the truth -- what do you want me to say? I don't know...blue? Why is this important?"

"I was looking through your suitcase and saw that most of your clothes are black and wondered why you don't wear any other colors...you must be quite modest," he said.

Were I not blindfolded and in an interrogation room in Evin, I'd laugh, as many a friend has scoffed at my dark wardrobe.

Of course, at the time, I was stuck in the sky-blue prison uniform.

The prisoner next door

She couldn't acknowledge my existence, nor I hers. Those were the rules.

But I knew the woman kept in the cell across the hall from me could hear me cry -- or, worse, sing. And I knew she knew I could hear her plead for certain comforts with the women who watched us.

spiegel_100110-pic1.jpg I gave these women -- all of them dressed in black chadors -- names: 20-something Roxanne, 50-ish Pasargard ("pass-are-guard") -- after a necklace she said she'd bought near the ancient site -- and The Student (a sociology graduate student on some sort of practicum who wore a perfume called Blue Lady).

"T-shirts," my neighbor tearfully pleaded, using the English word for it, pronouncing it with a Farsi accent, rolling the r. "You said you'd bring me Tee-sherrts."

Being in solitary confinement and having far too many hours for dark thoughts, I'd try to occupy myself by putting together a theoretical profile of the woman across the hall. When she knocked on her cell door to get attention (which was forbidden), I could tell that her knuckles were thick with age, possibly arthritic. Then there was the desperate request for denture glue. I'd hear her begging Roxanne and Pasargard to talk to her for a few minutes while she had her tea.

"We can't -- we're not allowed," she was told repeatedly. She'd been there for a while, I could tell, and her detention was starting to take its toll.

As tormented as I was in my own little world -- not knowing my fate, worrying about my family, haunted by what I'd seen in Syria, sleeping with the lights on to keep the aggressive cockroaches off (a lesson learned the hard way), topped off with the draining interrogations, I felt that woman across the hall suffered more, her vulnerability practically filling the air in my cell.

Some days thinking about the screams in Syria would do me in, so I'd ask for something to read, and finally, after several requests, was given a copy of the Mafatih book of prayers. I thumbed through it until I found one on being freed from prison. My neighbor was allowed a television in her room -- though, much to my dismay, she never watched the news -- so I suspected that she wasn't in on spying charges.

But why was she in Evin? I guessed that they'd picked her up on some minor infraction and had told her they'd let it slide provided she informed on others. This was the only reason I could imagine they'd have for continually giving her sheets of paper and telling her to "write everything down" in her cell.

My written statements were formally signed and fingerprinted during interrogations, so I figured that my neighbor's statements might be of a different nature.

Now and again, she'd cry with such deep sobs -- the sort that speak to a person crushed, at the end of her tether.

"I've filled 50 pages. I've written everything I know. What else can I do?"

The hushed tones of whoever was speaking to her -- possibly Roxanne -- were hard to pick up, but from the sobbing that followed, I gathered 50 pages were not enough.

Then, one day, during one of my fresh-air breaks, I felt another presence nearby. These breaks were pretty rigid. I had to wear a scarf on my head, and over that and my prison uniform, a chador. Then, the dreaded blindfolds.

Whichever outdoor area I was taken to -- a small courtyard or a grim, fenced-in rooftop deck -- I was told to remain in a specific area, to keep my blindfolds on (although I was allowed to raise them enough so that I could see my feet), to look down, never up, and to never, ever speak to anyone.

I was usually alone on these breaks, but then, one day, I thought I heard someone else. My head down, I paced in my allowed area. Feet! I caught a glimpse of feet wearing the prison-issued rubber slippers. After a few minutes, I couldn't help it. Pretending my scarf needed adjusting, I moved my head up, slightly, and through the narrow slit between my cheekbones and the blindfold, I caught a glimpse of her -- my neighbor, I'm sure of it. She was tiny. Easily 60. She stood there, blindfolded, barely moving, but I could tell that she could feel that I'd seen her. She started moving, as did I. Like ghosts, we passed each other a few times before she was taken in.

Evin-prision-Tehran3.jpgThe green plums of Evin

My last full day in Evin started horribly. Shortly after breakfast (a piece of bread, a chunk of cheese, and a cup of tea handed to me through a slot in my cell door), Roxanne came to my room, threw the blindfolds at me, and ordered me to get ready and get out.

"Put your chador and scarf on. Put the blindfold on. Hurry up! Hurry!"

She was uncharacteristically harsh and wouldn't tell me where I was being taken.

Panicked, I thought, "What fresh hell? The judge? Am I being charged? What?"

Blindfolded and disoriented, I was rushed down one hallway, and then another. I heard banging noises before being rushed into another room. The door slammed behind me.

Slipping off the blindfolds, my heart sank. I was in a tiny, long, and narrow cell (about as long as I am tall and thrice as wide) with a surprising amount of graffiti on the walls -- nothing too defiant, more of an attempt to show that someone else had been there before. I counted maybe a dozen different hands.

I'd noticed graffiti in my previous cell, a month-long diary of interrogations and meetings with judges that ended with "going to court." I showed this diary, written in a faint, penciled script, to Roxanne after she told me that no one ever stayed in that part of Evin for more than a week or so.

"Oh, never mind that," she said, blindfolding me before taking me out for my shower (I was allowed one every other day). When I came back to my cell, the diary was scrubbed off the wall.

In my new cell, the graffiti wasn't nearly as telling. But I could hear a lot of commotion around. Then, again, from outside the cell: "Put your hejab on. And your blindfold. Fast!"

I complied, shaking. I heard the cell door open.

"Sit in the corner. Don't look."

More banging. I peeked and saw a man repairing the lock on a cell door. Hours went by. I started feeling nervous and sick. Why was I being moved around? Why hadn't I heard from my interrogator in nearly three days?

When Roxanne brought me lunch, I refused. She could tell that my nerves were shot and offered to take me outside. Blindfolded and hejabed, I was led down a series of corridors before being taken outside.

"You can take the blindfolds off. There's no one here."

I was in a courtyard I'd never seen before. Pasargard was there too. We sat down on the metal steps. They gave me some tea and some medication to settle my stomach before talking to me as though we were friends.

Roxanne asked me about racism in the U.S., and why it was that "whenever we see these videos on TV, it shows white police beating black people. Even women! Don't they know it's sin to do those things?"

They too brought up Saberi, and accused her of lying, saying she'd never been mistreated. I countered with the truth -- that I had not yet read Saberi's book, but that I'd seen her speak in Doha, where she had, indeed, mentioned being psychologically tortured.

Then talk then turned to lighter subjects.

"We've been meaning to ask you about your hair," said Roxanne. "Why is it so short?"

"I don't like to mess with my hair too much," I offered.

"We think you should grow it long. You know what would suit you? The shekasteh [choppy, layered] style," said Roxanne. Pasargard agreed.

"It would suit the shape of your face."

I wondered if I'd remain in Evin long enough to cultivate that layered look. The thought of a lengthy detainment and having to give myself a haircut with the disposable leg razor (which I was allowed to use only under supervision) in the prison shower was grim.

Then I noticed it. The tree in the middle of the courtyard.

"Is that a gojeh sabz tree?" I asked, hoping it was. The sour, green plums are popular in Iran and just thinking of the fruit threw me back into my childhood, when I'd climb trees with a salt shaker in hand, picking the small, crunchy plums and eating them right off the branches.

"You know what that is?" asked Pasargard. "You like them?"

Seemingly excited that I finally wanted to eat something, my guards picked some of the plums, washed them, and offered them to me in a small colander. There I sat, in one of the scariest places in the world, eating plums my captors had picked for me as they told me more about themselves without sharing any major personal details. Pasargard told me she'd worked there for a number of years, while Roxanne talked about maybe looking for a new career if the economy improved. Neither spoke poorly of the system, but to me, it seemed that they were trapped there, much as I was.

It's amazing how much Iranians can say without revealing much at all -- it's practically a national art form.

* * *

On and by D. Parvaz | Journalist Parvaz in Syrian Custody | Her Reflections on Iranian Identity Abroad

On some Iranians who Parvaz observes "haven't had it so easy" | Nasrin Sotoudeh | Hossein Derakhshan | Mohammad Davari | Jafar Panahi | Shiva Nazar Ahari

Photos of Evin, as marked, by Fariba Amini; inside Evin by Fars News Agency.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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