Faced with undeniable evidence of a scandal, one solution is to blame others. But picking out a few expendable scapegoats from your own side – and punishing them – often works better. That is the tactic adopted by the Iranian regime in trying to shrug off revelations of atrocities in the Kahrizak detention centre.
This week an Iranian military court convicted and sentenced to death two officials who had been accused of torturing and killing three protesters in the centre during the aftermath of last year’s disputed presidential election.
The reports added that nine other suspects in the case were also sentenced to flogging or prison terms and one person was acquitted. The verdict is said to be not final and can be appealed. No names have been disclosed and the court sat behind closed doors, so it is impossible to verify anything about the case independently of the official statement about the case.
Kahrizak, known as Iran’s Guantánamo Bay among protesters, became a significant embarrassment for the Islamic Republic when a group of released prisoners gave testimonies to international media about the misfortunes they suffered in custody. It was built underground without proper ventilation and toilet facilities. Although it is supposed to have a maximum capacity of 50 prisoners, in the turmoil after Iran’s presidential election it was filled with hundreds. At least five have died under torture there and some were raped.
In July last year, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, ordered the closure of Kahrizak when Saeed Sadaghi, a pro-regime photographer, reportedly told him that he had been raped in the detention centre. However Khamenei didn’t mention the rape until Mehdi Karoubi, an Iranian opposition leader, wrote a widely publicised letter to the head of Iran’s Council of Experts revealing that he had met with a few of those who have been raped inside Kahrizak centre. The rape disclosure became a scandal for a regime that preaches moral values and boasts that it is an Islamic Republic. It sparked an outcry even within the supporters of the regime.
But it was only when 24-year-old Mohsen Rouhalamini, the son of a distinguished conservative figure, was named among those killed that the Iranian authorities were forced to respond. Subsequently, two other victims were identified, Amir Javadifar and Mohammad Kamrani. The two officials reportedly sentenced this week were charged with the death of these three protesters. (Opposition sources maintain that at least five protesters died in the centre, rather than three.)
As with other post-election scandals in Iran, the authorities first dismissed it as opposition propaganda, but later Iranian MPs assigned a committee to investigate the issue. In January 2010, the report of the investigation suggested that Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran’s former chief prosecutor, was behind the affair. However the claim of rape was dismissed in the report. Mortazavi was then rewarded by President Ahmadinejad with his appointment as head of Iran’s counter-smuggling department.
But since last summer, the more the government has tried to put an end to the scandal, the more the details have emerged about what really had happened. Last month, Roozonline, a US-based Iranian website, revealed that Ramin Pourandarjani, the examining doctor who had disclosed details of the deaths of some protesters, including Rouhalamini, was allegedly suffocated, although the government maintains that his death was due to natural causes.
The Human Rights Activists News Agency had interviewed a prisoner of Kahrizak whose name and gender were not disclosed for security reasons. The prisoner had said:
“After 43 days, they let me to call my family for the first time and let them know of my whereabouts. They showed me a video clip of my son and told me that he’s in custody and he’ll be raped if I don’t confess to what they ask me to do.”
The agency documented the scandal by piecing together the personal accounts of those who experienced the jail in Kahrizak. “Flogging, beating with batons and metal bars and electric shocks were common. Some were forced to pose their sexual organ in humiliation and some were sexually abused by bottles and batons. Some were bound and others had to pee on them,” the report says.
It is not the first time Iran has used the old trick of covering up a scandal by such trials. After a brutal attack on Tehran University campus 11 years ago, which left at least two dead and hundreds injured, the government employed the same method and put its police commanders and officers on trial. However in the appeals court almost all were acquitted, except one who was charged with stealing a student’s electric razor.
The trials over the campus scandal were not an end to the story; every year since then students have protested on the anniversary. Iran is now using the same tactic, but it won’t work – just as it didn’t work for the university campus. A month ago, there was speculation from an opposition website that Iran has reopened Kahrizak by changing its name to “Soroush 111″. The Kahrizak story is far from over.