Sometimes they come in surges, at other times in trickles. But the desultory stream of Iranians fleeing their country continues to bear witness to the brutal human-rights violations of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolutionary regime.
Exiles arriving in Paris, London, and other European cities via Turkey and Pakistan bring with them tales of abhorrent living conditions, torture, and murder in Iran's prisons.
The exodus persists, with up to 700 refugees reportedly leaving Iran each week. Many of them are escaping Iran's general political and economic instability, but a good portion are direct victims of the repression that has gripped the country for the past two years. Their testimony suggests that despite the recent clampdown ordered by Khomeini against human-rights abuse, the persecution has shown few signs of slowing down.
Khomeini's eight-point ''liberalization'' charter, which was introduced in mid-December, calls on Islamic revolutionary officials to spare ordinary people unnecessary harassment and brutality. It has since resulted in a purge of public prosecutors, the release of 400 political prisoners, and the creation of special monitoring teams. The charter, however, did not protect those who wish to criticize the Islamic republic.
Both the Paris-based political organizations and those among the exiles who have suffered under the present regime have labeled the Ayatollah's decree as ''cosmetic.'' They find it hard to believe that Khomeini or his successor will succeed in reducing the terror with which Islamic revolutionary elements - particularly the almost autonomous local justice committees - have been ruling Iran.
Political opponents and religious and ethnic minorities such as the Bahais and Kurds will continue to be killed, imprisoned, and tortured in the ''name of Islam,'' these political groups say.
''There is virtually no hope that things will change for the better in the near future. There is a deep sense of pessimism and despair among most people,'' says a French source who recently returned from Iran and who has close contacts in the exile community.
Reports from refugees and European-based human-rights organizations say that as many as 20,000 ''enemies of the revolution,'' including children, have been killed during the past 18 months. Exact figures are difficult to come by. Some 40,000 to 50,000 political prisoners are thought to be incarcerated in Iranian jails.
Tehran's Evin Prison, for example, a notorious detention center under the Shah, is now said to hold an estimated 15,000 to 16,000 inmates, three times more than when it was controlled by Savak, the Shah's dreaded secret police.
At present, at least 12 detention centers are known to be operating in and around Tehran alone.
The Iranian Embassy in Paris has denied these charges. Embassy officials maintain that the charges are all part of an international plot aimed at discrediting the Islamic revolution. An embassy spokesman refers to the French-language Tehran weekly Sorouche, which pointedly has condemned organizations such as Amnesty International as anti-Islamic instruments in the service Zionism and imperialism.
Some organizations, including Amnesty, are reluctant to qualify the violations of the present regime as being ''worse'' than under the Shah. Nevertheless, critics, including those whose human rights have been violated by both regimes, have begun drawing bitter comparisons.
As might be expected, former Shah supporters, who often conveniently seem to ignore their own previous persecution of left-wing dissidents, religious activists, and Kurds, are seeking to turn the situation to their own political advantage.
A 1978 Amnesty International report said it could not cite a figure for the number of political prisoners in Iran, but noted that opposition sources claimed the number was far higher than the 2,200 put forward by the Iranian government in February 1978. Even those who acknowledge that Savak was responsible for ''excesses,'' maintain that Iran at least enjoyed a sense of economic well-being and political security.
Other opponents have described the present terror as being ''more widespread'' and ''brutal'' than during the days of the empire. ''Under the former regime it was a matter of professionals torturing one in a methodical way ,'' said Fatemah Mahmoudi, a young Iranian woman who was arrested in February 1981 for distributing left-wing tracts. She now lives in France. ''With these people, we have to deal with madmen. They never stop. They beat you until you are dead.''
Many pious Muslims, who originally welcomed Khomeini's return with enthusiasm , consider as offensive to their faith the manner with which the Revolutionary Guards persecute opponents using Islam as a pretext. Former prisoners often remark on the way the guards twist Islam to justify their own atrocities, but also note that they zealously perform their ablutions and prayers in accordance with their religion.
Many women, including those who are pregnant, and girls passing through prisons such as Evin, are reported to have been raped or otherwise violated. ''In their way of thinking it is permissible to soil girls who won't go to heaven anyway,'' explained Fatemah, who spent 18 months in four different Iranian jails. ''It is the same for torture. They have a clean conscience.''
There have been many reports of young women being forcibly married to permit their ''legal'' execution the next day. Under Iran's version of Islam, unmarried women may not be executed. One religious leader apparently announced that girls could be executed from nine years of age onward, boys from age 15. Simulated executions, as part of the torture process, have also been reported.''Evin [ Prison] is the sort of place where you can't hope to get out alive,'' said Ahmed , a young Iranian worker who eventually managed to bribe his way out in December and make his way to France after 18 months inside. ''It got to such a point that one would judge another's chances of survival before revealing any information about oneself.''According to survivors, most executions are carried out where they cannot be seen, but are often heard. ''How could one ignore them?'' says Ahmed. ''During the great waves of repression [early 1982], we were 70 to a single cell. We were allowed to go to the toilet for four minutes every day and could only sleep in turns.
''When evening arrived, one could only hear the groans of those who had been tortured. How could one sleep with that? Then came the so-called mercy shots. Two hundred, sometimes 250. After that we didn't have the courage to continue counting. . . . Twice they even organized public hangings.''
A recent Amnesty report based on the testimony of released prisoners and prisoners' relatives stated that many inmates in Iranian jails have no idea why they have been arrested. Families are also never sure whether those missing are dead or alive. ''It might take days, weeks, or months to find out,'' Amnesty said. ''And for many it might never be possible to find out how the person they were seeking finally died - whether he or she was killed in a shootout or arrest , died under torture in jail, was officially or unofficially executed, or shot while allegedly trying to escape.''
Increasingly, those being arrested today are persons without political affiliations. Many are simply accused of being ''anti-Islamic'' or ''spies.'' Family members are also taken hostage in lieu of relatives who have fled the country or are associated with political opposition groups.
''The number of militants being brought in has dropped dramatically because they have mostly gone underground or to Kurdistan to continue fighting the government,'' said a spokesman of the Paris-based Front for the Liberation of Iran.
Apart from those trying to flee Iran, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva has noted that hundreds of Iranians already living abroad are surfacing every month to apply for political asylum in Europe and the United States. The majority of these are Iranian citizens whose tourist, residence, or academic visas have run out. Despite Khomeini's appeal for Iranians, notably the skilled middle classes, to return home, many fear they would face imprisonment or death at the hands of the revolution.