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Inside Iran’s infamous Evin prison

(AFP) / 13 September 2007

TEHERAN - From the road it is easy to miss. A small outhouse and a sign saying “Evin House of Detention” give no hint of the huge complex of guard towers and cells that lies behind.

Evin prison in TeheranA metal gate slides open to reveal Iran’s best-known jail, a maze of walls and concrete blocks stretching high up the barren hillside in northern Teheran and enclosing a relatively short but checkered history.

Built by the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1970s, Evin prison was the site of torture and detention of political opponents by his SAVAK secret police. Today it houses around 4,600 inmates.

Rights groups accuse the Islamic republic of carrying out mass executions in the prison in the turbulent years after the shah’s overthrow in 1979, and continuing to hold political prisoners and using torture today.

But this is vehemently denied by the authorities. In a bid to show transparency, they opened the jail to journalists for a rare visit, showing off impeccably clean cells and facilities that even include a swimming pool.

“The bad image comes from the past of the prison under the former regime,” prison director Mr Sedaghat told an AFP correspondent in an interview in a prison canteen.

“But I want to say very openly that this is a normal prison. We have a turnover of 50 inmates being freed and coming in every day. This shows that this is a normal prison,” said the director, who did not give his first name.

Iran denies keeping political prisoners and accuses the West of greatly exaggerating the issue.

Sohrab Soleimani, the director of Teheran prisons, said there were 15 prisoners in Evin on “security” charges such as espionage. ”We do not have political prisoners. We have security prisoners,” he said.

Evin’s best-known detainees have fallen into this category, such as the dissident writer Akbar Ganji who served six years, the reformist cleric Mohsen Kadivar and the US-Iranian scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Current “security” detainees were not shown on the tour. Neither was the notorious section 209 -- where Western rights groups say such prisoners are held — which is run by the intelligence ministry.

Three Iranian students from Amir Kabir University have also been held in the prison for the past four months on suspicion of publishing material offensive to Islam.

Their families say they have been tortured, an allegation the authorities deny.

‘A good prison’

But journalists were allowed to visit prisoners in their dormitories, which mostly held 16 bunks and were furnished with television and fans, as well as the wing for the 400 female detainees.

“Welcome to our cell! Welcome to our five-star hotel!” exclaimed Hossein, 35, who was jailed over a fatal car accident. “Generally this is a good prison, but a prison is a prison,” he said more restrainedly.

In the library, prisoners’ heads were bent in apparent concentration as they read Holy Quran, newspapers or English textbooks surrounded by shelves stuffed with Persian and foreign literature.

Some asked not to be interviewed, but Jafar Rahimi, 50, serving a one-year term for financial crimes, explained that the prison day starts at 7:00 am and that lights out is at 10:00 pm.

“There is television and the newspapers that reflect the opinion of the government,” like the governmental daily Iran or the moderate Etelaat, he said.

The visit was not without its surprises. Reporters were startled to discover that the first thing they were shown was — of all things — a swimming pool.

It’s gleaming blue waters surrounded by parasols and other pool furniture looked tempting in the hot morning sun. Several burly prisoners in trunks swam lengths, an activity they can enjoy daily, according to prison officials.

“It is forbidden to make jokes in the pool,” said a poolside sign.

And later in the tour, who should appear in the well-kept gardens but Evin’s best-known current inmate, US-Iranian scholar Kian Tajbakhsh.

In a neatly orchestrated encounter, Tajbakhsh said that he expected to be released “soon,” and expressed satisfaction with the conditions of detention, even though he was being held in solitary confinement.

“The conditions in prison are fine, I’m in a solitary cell, I have a television and a table. I have a private bathroom,” he told the startled reporters.

“I have weekly visits from my wife and I am able to speak with her every night by telephone,” he said before being led away by wardens.

In the prison factory, dozens of inmates hunched over sewing machines completing an order for overalls from the car industry, work that allows them to earn money for themselves and their families.

Their labour is supervised by huge portraits of revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Between these pictures, a smaller portrait gazes down on the workers — the bespectacled face of Asadollah Lajevardi, the former head of Evin prison who was accused of rights violations during the 1980s and assassinated by the outlawed opposition in 1998.

A long shadow is also cast by the case of Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi who was arrested for photographing a demonstration outside Evin in June 2003 and who then died in detention in what her lawyers claim was murder.

But Iran’s judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi said: “Evin has a bad reputation as under the former regime it was the prison of the SAVAK and the scene of mediaeval torture.

“All of this has changed. We respect the rights of the prisoners. We have stopped solitary cells. We stopped the use of uniforms. We have taken measures to reduce the number of prisoners.”

Jamshidi acknowledged that in some cases judges could order prisoners to be held in solitary confinement “suites,” but he insisted that such units were comfortable.

“An isolation suite has all comforts. All that this means is that the prisoner cannot have contact with the other prisoners.”

 
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