“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in “The House of the Dead,” his semi-autobiographical novel about inmates in a Siberian prison camp. Iran continues to fail the Dostoyevsky test.
The Evin Prison in Tehran, where a long list of leaders, intellectuals and journalists have been detained over the years, added to its infamy this month with the so-called suicide of Kavous Seyed Emami, a leading environmentalist and academic.
Dr. Seyed Emami, 63, who came from an old clerical family, was a dual Iranian and Canadian citizen. He had received his doctorate from the University of Oregon and returned to Iran in the early 1990s to teach sociology at Imam Sadeq University in Tehran, where Iran’s future elite is educated.
He helped found the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Iran’s most important environmental organization, with the encouragement of the United Nations and the Islamic Republic, especially Kaveh Madani, the deputy head of the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs.
On Jan. 24, Dr. Seyed Emami, Mr. Madani and Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American businessman, were arrested. Dr. Seyed Emami was accused of spying for the United States and Mossad. Two weeks after his arrest, prison authorities informed his family about his death. “This person was one of the accused, and given he knew there is a torrent of confessions against him and he confessed himself, unfortunately he committed suicide in prison,” Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, a prosecutor in Tehran, told an Iranian news agency.
Dr. Seyed Emami became a victim of the political struggle between President Hassan Rouhani and moderate reformers who have become increasingly concerned about environmental issues, especially dams, and die-hard conservatives among the Revolutionary Guards who are reluctant to slow down such rural projects.
When Hassan Firuzabadi, a former chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces and a military adviser to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was asked by the Iranian press about the arrests of the environmentalists, he spoke about Western spies using lizards and chameleons that could “attract atomic waves” to spy on Iran’s nuclear program.
The increasingly common “suicides” by prisoners stem from Iran’s inordinate reliance on “confessions” in convicting defendants.
Iranian judges treat “confessions” as the “proof of proofs,” the “mother of proofs” and the “best evidence of guilt.” The use of forced confessions began in the last years of the shah’s rule, in the 1970s, but drastically increased after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini regarded them as the highest proof of guilt.
I analyzed numerous legal cases and around 300 prison memoirs for a book about forced confessions. To obtain such “confessions,” interrogators in Iran rely heavily on psychological and physical pressures. They — like fellow interrogators elsewhere — scrupulously avoid the word torture (“shekanjeh” in Persian). In fact, the Iranian Constitution explicitly outlaws shekanjeh. Instead, interrogators describe what they do as “ta’zir” (punishment). Innumerable prison memoirs detail this process. It can be described as Iran’s version of “enhanced interrogation.”
Prisoners are asked a question, and if their answer is unsatisfactory, they are sentenced to a specific number of lashings on the ground that they had lied. These whippings can continue until the desired answer is given — and committed to paper. According to a letter circulated by some 40 members of Parliament, hallucinatory drugs now supplement these traditional methods.
In the 1980s and the 1990s, detainees were routinely shown on television reading their confessions, but the broadcasts were mostly stopped after most Iranians concluded that they were staged. The confessions continue to be used in court, however.
Detainees have a limited number of options in the face of interrogation. They can submit, even before the instruments of enhanced interrogation are displayed. They can undergo prolonged agony, which may lead to death, if inadvertently — interrogators want a confession, not a badly damaged corpse, which can cause political embarrassment. The detainees can accept a plea bargain and “admit” to a lesser transgression in return for release or a lighter sentence.
After the disputed presidential elections in 2009 in which the right-wing populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prevailed over reformist opponents, many — including visitors from abroad — gave “exclusive” interviews to the regime press confessing to sundry transgressions, especially helping foreign powers conspiring to bring about “regime change.”
Detainees have also agreed to public confessions and tried to insert phrases that undermined the whole ritual. A prisoner — later executed — declared in 1983 that he had been recruited into the K.G.B., the Soviet intelligence agency upon his arrival in Russia in 1951. He would have been aware that anyone versed in the topic would know the K.G.B. was created three years later, in 1954.
A former Khomeini follower said in his public confession in 1987 that he had resorted to black magic and the occult to spread cancerous cells among clerical leaders he opposed.
In 1984, leaders of the Communist Tudeh Party who had been arrested after criticizing Iran’s war with Iraq, vociferously thanked their “benevolent guards” for “opening their eyes,” providing them with books that debunked their previous ideology, and transforming prisons into “universities” and “educational institutions.” One stressed that the prison wardens had given them “shalaqha-e haqayeq,” or lashes of truth.
They confessed to “high treason” for adopting alien ideologies and failing to study properly the history of their country. They also held themselves “personally responsible” for “treasonable mistakes” made by the left in the distant past, such as during the constitutional revolution of 1906, which took place long before they were born.
Earlier reformers, led by President Mohammad Khatami, tried between 1997 and 2005 to pass legislation to prevent the use of torture in prison. But such attempts were swept away with the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005. President Rouhani, now embarrassed by the arrest of his environmentalist allies, is eager to channel the concerns of reformers about the use of torture. He has supported the 40 deputies who have protested prison “suicides” and has set up a committee to investigate the death of Dr. Seyed Emami. Time will show whether this committee has any teeth.
Irrespective of the findings of Mr. Rouhani’s committee, what Iran needs is a radical reform of its legal procedures to ensure that its courts will stop the use of “confessions” and instead rely on verifiable independent and collaborative evidence.
Ervand Abrahamian, an emeritus professor of history at City University of New York, is the author of Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran.