ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Iran’s security forces have enjoyed a “climate of impunity” during six months of “sweeping repression” to put down mass protests, according to an Amnesty International report released Wednesday that catalogs abuses from rape, killings, torture, and show trials.
The Amnesty report is the most detailed accounting of abuses – and Iranian officials’ attempts to cover them up – so far of the six months of political crisis in Iran.
Since disputed elections on June 12, Iran has been thrown into a political crisis as protesters – who at their peak numbered hundreds of thousands in the weeks after the vote – took to the streets to challenge what they called the fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“The authorities have resorted to exceptionally high levels of violence and arbitrary measures to stifle protest and dissent,” notes the report. Instead of holding state agents accountable for crimes under Iran’s penal code, Amnesty says, Iran’s courts have been used “as part of a repressive state machinery to allow the security forces to act with impunity.”
Iranian officials continue to deny that any of the more than 4,000 people arrested during the unrest were raped. After initial denials of any deaths in custody – and a number of contradictory statements on the issue – officials have since acknowledged three deaths at the Kahrizak detention facility, which was ordered closed in late July for being substandard.
Government-sanctioned abuses have attended Iranian prisons long before the 1979 Islamic revolution, when the pro-West Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi first set up his SAVAK secret police with training from the Central Intelligence Agency and Israel’s Mossad.
Prisons in the Islamic Republic have also been prone to human rights abuses, especially during episodes in the early and late 1980s when several thousand regime opponents were executed.
A history of street violence
Political protest has always been dangerous in Iran due to the presence of unscrupulous vigilantes and militants, says Ervand Abrahamian, a historian of Iran at the City University of New York.
“There was always this element of [militants] who would come into crowds and be willing to kill people,” says Mr. Abrahamian, noting that in clashes last summer plainclothes militants, some of them middle-aged, were caught on film carrying knives.
“That element is still there – and it doesn’t necessarily need to be among the Basiji [militia]; they could be thugs that are organized by Ahmadinejad’s people,” says Abrahamian. “That’s the message they are trying to send: If you take part in demonstrations, you risk having your head broken, or being knifed. That may deter some people. But it makes the people who are willing to come out and demonstrate much tougher characters.”
Rape is not known to have featured in prisons during the first years of the Islamic Republic, because many of the wardens were devout Muslims and rape “would not fit into their psychology,” says Abrahamian, whose books include a detailed 1999 study of prison conditions called “Tortured Confessions.”
The case of Ebrahim Mehtari
Of the three cases of alleged rape detailed in the Amnesty report, that of Ebrahim Mehtari includes his forensic medical report that specifies burns, abrasions, and bruising.
“Once it became known that his injuries were not the result of a criminal abduction but of torture by state officials, all the documents and evidence disappeared,” except for the medical report that Mr. Mehtari was able to copy, says the Amnesty International report. Officials, Amnesty stated, “have done their utmost to ensure that accounts of rape are discredited and not circulated.”
The charges of rape made public by Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and former parliament speaker who was a candidate in the June election, electrified Iranian officials. But numerous press reports and testimony – some of it in the Amnesty report – point to different attitude among Basiji and the Revolutionary Guard.
Iranian media reports since the summer have suggested that street thugs picked up in previous crackdowns for criminal activity were brought into some detention facilities to “guard” and abuse detainees.
“Now it’s no longer the ideologically committed people who are actually running these prisons,” says Abrahamian. “These are people who have more likely joined the [Revolutionary Guard] because their career prospects are good, so ideology is less important, and you’re more likely to get psychopaths [and] thugs who are quite happy to have their people do these things.”
Amnesty International’s Iran specialist, Elise Auerbach, said in a statement: “Although the authorities have done everything possible to suppress knowledge of the abuses and to further punish those victims and witnesses who courageously reported them, the massive scale of the violations is impossible to hide.”
The report states that detainees who made public accusations of rape against their jailers “have been targeted for further human rights violations” and treated “as a further threat to the state simply for revealing the truth about the crimes they have suffered.”
Alleged rape victim Ebrahim Sharifi, who, like Mehtari, has fled Iran to Turkey, told Amnesty: “I provided my testimony to Mehdi Karroubi[‘s committee] but they came and stole it all. I would not have fled Iran; I would not stay [here] for more than one hour if I could have got some justice in Iran.”