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Interview with a former prisoner

Maryam Maktoob
May 31, 2007

After being incarcerated in one of the world’s most notorious prisons, Kianoosh Sanjari, a human rights activist, finally escaped Iran’s oppressive regime. Now hiding in Iraq, waiting for Amnesty International to bring him to The United States, Kianoosh took the time to have an extensive interview with me. Kianoosh gives detailed accounts of his time in Evin Prison, and what he hopes to accomplish now that he is free. Since Kianoosh does not speak fluent English, Roya Teimouri, a fellow human rights activist living in Los Angeles, took the time to act as a translator for our interview.  

Maryam: What happened the first time you were incarcerated, and for what were you incarcerated for?

Kianoosh: I was a student at the University of Tehran. The first time [I was arrested] was for being involved in a demonstration. I wasn’t a political activist at the time. I was 17 years old and in my second year of university studying graphic design. I was being charged for supposedly being involved in a demonstration that was against the Iranian government. I was beaten up really badly before being taken to Tehran’s Evin Prison. The officials blindfolded us and threw us into police vans to and from the different destinations.  Soon after, we were transferred to a place called Tohid for interrogation. We were taken secretly in and out of facilities blindfolded so we wouldn’t know where we were going. The officials would often play psychological games with us so we would lose our sense of direction.

Maryam: What is Tohid?

Kianoosh: Tohid is a place where the Iranian government officials take anyone they arrest. It is also the place where they conduct most of their torture. I was there for two months.  Other political activists such as Ahmad Batebi, and Mohammad Akbari have also been tortured at Tohid.

Maryam: Describe Tohid and your experience in there.

Kianoosh: When I was taken to Tohid, the officials blindfolded a group of us. We had to put our hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us so we wouldn’t fall. Each prisoner is kept in a cell that is 1 ½ by 2 meters. My first time at Tohid, I was stuck in that small cell for three weeks. Tohid has underground places where the prison officials conduct torture and lash people at the bottom of their feet. The people who conduct the torturing have permission from the high court to perform any torture they want. One form of torture they conducted consisted of taking us into a courtyard blindfolded. They would make us sit in the courtyard, oblivious to what is happening, and they would suddenly play loud sounds of people being beaten and tortured.  After a long while, the prison guards would angrily ask us, “Is this the kind of freedom you want? If so, then this is what you get!”

Another form of torture they used on prisoners was only allowing them to use the restrooms three times a day. The problem with this is that prisoners who get tortured develop full bladder problems, and therefore need to use the restroom more often than three times. It would be nothing out of the ordinary for prisoners to be forced to pee in their own pants. 

Maryam: Does this type of torture still occur at Tohid?

Kianoosh: Recently they closed down Tohid and they have turned it into a museum.  The “museum” only displays pictures of people who were tortured during the Shah’s regime, and fails to recognize the torture of the political prisoners of the current regime.

Maryam: Did this type of torture also occur in Tehran’s Evin prison?

Kianoosh: The same kinds of torture techniques still occur in all of these prisons. The same things are happening to all of the political prisoners.

Roya: When Tohid was opened, it was ruled under the military force. This is the worst kind of place to be. It is the military forces who are out on the streets of Iran taking innocent people in and falsely accusing them of committing crimes against the Iranian government.

Kianoosh: We experienced all different sections and all different types of prisons.   

I think that Tohid was the worst out of all them, but the same manners are happening in all sections of the prison. When somebody was taken to Tohid, the families were not notified of the arrests for months. They could rot in the prison cells and no one would know what happened to them. 

Maryam: Describe your time in solitary confinement.

Kianoosh: There were nights when I would stand by the iron bars. I would listen to the women being tortured. They were crying and screaming. I would hear the people who were torturing them, yelling, and screaming at the women.

Maryam: Describe your last prison experience before you fled the country.

Kianoosh: I was taken to section 209 of Evin Prison, which is the solitary confinement area.  My family wasn’t notified of my whereabouts. I was in solitary confinement for an entire month before my family was able to contact me.

Maryam: What reason did the officials give you or your family for imprisoning you?

Kianoosh: Accusations that are given to all political prisoners are the same: You are advertising against the government; you are calling the officials cheaters or liars, or you are probably involved with people outside Iran. The government officials keep you in prison for months if you commit any of the aforementioned crimes.

Maryam: Did you continue with activism work after you were released from prison?

Kianoosh: After I was released, I decided to write all my memories and experiences of prison in the form of a web blog. I wrote about the experiences of my political prisoner friends whom I met in jail. I even wrote detailed accounts of Ahmad Batebi’s physician who was also arrested. While I was writing web blogs, I wasn’t aware that the Iranian government was planning my arrest behind my back.

Maryam: They arrested you once again?

Kianoosh: During this time, an Ayatollah in Iran who is in favour of secularism started a movement against the Iranian government. He felt they were using Islam against the people. One night, while he was having a meeting with his followers, military guards surrounded his house. By chance I went over to his house that night to get information for my web blog. As soon as I arrived, I was arrested. I was once again returned to solitary confinement. A man came into my cell and started slapping my face and interrogating me. When I asked him why he was hitting me, he slapped me harder and proceeded to ask the same questions. The next day, three or four men with turbans, most likely Ayatollahs, came into my prison cell and started accusing me of hitting and abusing innocent people on the streets. They charged me with many crimes that I never committed. For example, they accused me of throwing a hand made arm into a crowd during a protest. I was also accused of getting paid to be a web blogger and I was supposedly attempting to unite other web bloggers around the world.  This is one way for the government to show the people in Iran that activists like me are doing the wrong thing. The officials would interrogate us until they could get a lie out of us, or until their torture got too exhausting. Their ultimate goal was to get us to falsely admit to the accusations against us. The government officials want the Iranian people to think that we political activists are fed financially from different groups and oppositions outside of Iran. They wanted us to make the Iranian regime look good and everything else to look bad. After ten months in solitary confinement, I was able to have my mom visit me. They allowed her to visit, so they can put pressure and instill fear in me so I can falsely confess.  After not being successful in their interrogation, I was placed back in solitary confinement for two more months. I have served two full years in prison since I was 17 years old. Ten months of my prison time was spent in solitary confinement.

Maryam: How did you get released out of prison this time?

Kianoosh: I served my time in prison and I was released. The government officials thought that I had learned my lesson and would ultimately stop being involved in activism work. Instead, I started giving interviews and began writing more of my accounts on my web blog. One day, one of the high officials called my house and started harassing me. Soon after I was called into the court and the officials requested for me to start talking about that Ayatollah who turned against the government. They wanted me to state that he was mentally insane, but I denied cooperation with the officials.

Maryam: What was the breaking point that made you decide to flee Iran?

Kianoosh: I never thought that one day I would be forced to leave my county. After I discussed leaving Iran with my friends, they realized that was the best decision I could make. I had no better choice but to leave Iran; my life was in danger, and I got continuously harassed by government officials after being released from prison. I had to leave everything behind, and I am very sorry that I had to be forced to make that decision. The hardest part was leaving my mom and younger brother behind.

Maryam: How does your mother feel about your involvement in activism?

Kianoosh: Of course my mother was very disturbed by the entire situation. She spent her days begging for my freedom. For instance, in 2002, I was the spokesperson for the United Students movement. Iran gave me five years of prison time for this, but my mom begged so much for my sentence to be decreased that the government reduced it to one year. My mom has been a big support to me. Every time I was arrested, the officials would call my house and talk to my mother. They would warn her against talking to the media and not telling anyone about my situation in the prison, but she still did what she had to do. When the media contacted her, she would cry and talk about the situation she was put in. The last time I was arrested, the government officials called the house and she cried and begged to see me. She just wanted to make sure I was alive. She begged to see me alive for one second. She has been a big support to me.  

Maryam: Is anyone in Iran safe?

Kianoosh: No one in Iran has any safety. For example, there are poor family members who have political gatherings in front of Amnesty International in Iran, and soon after they all get arrested.  Even if someone is protesting a simple pay hike at their job, they will get immediately arrested. Even if a parent is with his/her kids; everyone present will be arrested. There is a man by the name of Omid Ahbassgolinejad who has two daughters and a wife. One day he and his family were standing outside of Amnesty International, at which point they were all arrested, including his three and four year old children. As this example demonstrates, no one, even if you are a young child has any safety in Iran.

Maryam: Who have been the biggest supporters of the political prisoners?

Kianoosh: Families of the political prisoners have been the biggest supporters. In Ahmad Batebi’s case, his wife informed the world what was happening to her husband. She was also arrested herself for being too outspoken. The officials kidnapped her for defending her husband.

Maryam: What’s next for you now that you have fled Iran?

Kianoosh: Right now I have been going daily to the United Nations office in Iraq. As you know, Iraq is not a safe place right now. I wish to come to America soon and fight against the Iranian government.

Maryam: How do you plan to fight against the Iranian government in America?

Kianoosh: I feel that the actual fight against the government of Iran is in Iran. That is why I am sorry to have left the country. Now that I am out, and there is more freedom of speech, I hope to be the voice of the people of Iran. My friends in Iran have said to me that I can be their voice outside of Iran and get their messages across. In a free world, people need to know what is going on to the people in Iran. It is our duty to tell people what kind of government is ruling Iran. If you look at what is going on in Iran, there are different movements all the time. The outside world needs to support the movements that are occurring in Iran. They need to go stand beside the people’s movements. The people of Iran need mental support more than anything. The people of Iran can arrange the rest on their own.  The movement is happening inside Iran as we speak. We need to help the Iranian people push it forward.

Maryam: What can we do as citizens of Western countries to help the Iranian people with their movement?

Kianoosh: Countries need to stop doing negotiations with Iran. People in Canada can urge their governments to stop doing negotiations with Iran. If you follow the news, you will see what they are doing to the women and men in Iran. The citizens are not allowed to even dress the way that they want. The new generation of Iran is desperate for someone or another country to come and release them from the torturous hands of the Ayatollahs. The people don’t have power because the government is ruling them with fear. The Iranian government doesn’t care about human rights organizations.

Maryam: How can Iranians in the West get involved in political activism work?

Kianoosh: There are not many Iranian freedom fighters outside of Iran. If an Iranian living in the West wants to help, they should go stand outside of Embassy of Iran or Amnesty International and protest. We don’t see that often. If we have 100,000 Iranians get together, we could make a difference; even if it’s a small difference. Everyone should know about the political prisoners and what they are going through. I hope that people who are not freedom fighters can wake up from the dream that they are in and think about their home country. Unfortunately what I see for the people living outside of Iran is that they left Iran to live under different circumstances. They forgot the poverty, the killings and the prisons. They forgot about the torture. Instead they have been taken by the beauty of the West and have forgotten where they came from. It is our duty as human rights activists to inform these people of what is going on in Iran.

Maryam: Do you have any expectations of the Iranian youth living in Western countries?

Kianoosh: Because I haven’t come to the West yet, I have no recognition of the youth here. I think that if we want to reach the youth, we have to speak their language. We need to try to communicate with them and make them realize it will be to everyone’s benefit to overthrow the Iranian government. I believe that the media can play a very important part in this as well. The youth can start a new revolution through the media. It is very difficult at the same time, because there are Iranian stations in Los Angeles who are bought from the Iranian government. Anytime you see advertisements from Iran on the satellite system, chances are that station is being bought by the Iranian government. Comment


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