After the son of a prominent Iranian politician died in police custody last week, 69 leading reformers sent an unusually harsh and direct letter to the nation’s clerical establishment, complaining of torture by the regime “reminiscent of the dark days of the Shah.”
The signatories of the July 25 letter included former President Mohammed Khatami, reformist cleric Mehdi Karoubi, and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man whose supporters say had Iran’s June election stolen from him by hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
They warned of torture being used to extract false confessions from reformist activists, and said that they’d received “disturbing news in recent days about the physical and mental health of several of the detainees.” (A rough translation of the letter is available on Mr. Mousavi’s facebook page.)
Joe Stork, who covers Iran and other Middle Eastern countries for Human Rights Watch, says his group is certainly concerned about deaths in detention, but sees no evidence of a flood of such deaths.
However, despite government intimidation that has “left people frightened about communicating with groups like ours,” he says the scope of arbitrary detention in Iran now is a great worry. “
“There are lots of people who have been detained for many weeks now that have without access to lawyers or family, and what we’re hearing is rather alarming about their condition,’’ he says. “It’s hard to say anything for certain. There’s a real effort on the part of the government there to make sure that information doesn’t get out, in particular, complaints about detention and so forth.”
On Monday, Mr. Mousavi called for ongoing protests and continued to press for use of Tehran’s Grand Mosala, a sprawling public prayer location, this Thursday to commemorate the “martyrs” killed by pro-government security forces and militiamen in June.
The government has been reluctant to give such permission until now, well aware that mass mourning in Shiite Islam is a powerful tool of political mobilization. Thursday would mark the 40th day since 20 protesters were killed, an important milestone in the Shiite ritual mourning cycle.
The death – many Iranians are calling it a murder – that helped spur this weekend's letter was of Mohsen Ruholamini, who was arrested at a July 9 protest in Tehran. Last Tuesday, his family was informed of his death, and he was buried on Friday. Mr. Ruholamini, who was 25, was apparently healthy when taken into custody, reformists say.
Underscoring the equal-opportunity nature of regime brutality at this point is the fact that his father was an adviser to Mohsen Rezai, a conservative presidential candidate and a former commander in the Revolutionary Guard, a military branch founded to protect the ideological purity of the Islamic revolution.
The Iranian Student News Agency, a national newswire run by university students and partially funded by the state, on Monday quoted a senior prison official as saying that Ruholamini was ill with meningitis before being sent to Evin prison, and that he died of the illness.
Opposition activists and some members of parliament say beatings he received in custody led to his death.
That death – and the detention of hundreds of students, lawyers, and journalists – in crowded and filthy conditions appears to at least be creating some cracks in the coalition of hard-liners that backed Ahmadinejad in the election.
Conservative member of parliament Ali Motahari told the Tehran Times on Monday that Iran’s intelligence and interior ministers need to make a full accounting to parliament about what’s happening to Iran’s political prisoners, and said there’s a strong movement among lawmakers to have the men fired.
Evin Prison in Tehran has long been a house of horrors for Iranians, part of the reason regime opponents appear to be gaining traction over the issue
It was where the Savak, the secret police of the shah, devised ever-more sophisticated ways to torture the regime’s political opponents until the Islamic Revolution deposed the shah in 1979. And it was where many Iranians' dreams for justice and freedom from such arbitrary treatment under clerical rule died, as hundreds of political prisoners were executed and tortured there as the revolution consolidated its position in the early 1980s. (here’s a Monitor dispatch on brutality and overcrowding at Evin from 1982.)