|By Anne Singleton
On Monday 14 June an extraordinary meeting took place in one of the world’s notorious prisons. In Evin prison in Tehran, in a large cool airy room situated close by the prison hospital sat Sir Teddy Taylor, MP (Con) and Mr Win Griffiths, MP (Lab) from the UK, an independent reporter from the UK, and myself representing Iran-Interlink, and two Iranian lawyers.
The wing in which we sat contains prisoners who pose a threat to national security; members of terrorist organisations like the Mojahedin-e Khalq and other political opponents of the Islamic Republic, as well as individuals such as a High Court judge who had accepted a very large bribe.
Our meeting opened with an explanation from a team of Iranian security officials. This team we were told, is responsible for the Mojahedin prisoners. Very soon, the two men we had travelled so far to see were ushered one by one into the room. We met first with Ebrahim Khodabandeh, followed by Jamil Bassam.
In April 2003 these two men had been arrested on the Syrian border where the Mojahedin had involved them in smuggling out of Iraq through Syria large sums of US dollars, documents, passports and other items, of which neither man had any prior knowledge. After being held in Syria for two months while the Mojahedin tried to bribe officials there, the Syrians handed the men to Iran as nationals of that country. (Unfortunately Syria does not recognise the UN Convention on Refugees and the two men were travelling with UK refugee documents.) Once the men had been taken to Iran, the Mojahedin began its campaign to free them, or rather, began a campaign to publicize itself. The Mojahedin needs to have more and more martyrs in order to justify its intractable position vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic and so it took the issue to the UK and European parliaments on the basis that the two men were under severe torture and facing execution. The NCRI, political front for the MKO, even issued statements announcing places and names of torturers of the two men and predicted for a year that they would be executed imminently.
In February 2004 whilst in Iran, Baroness Emma Nicholson, Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee made her second visit, at the request of Iran-Interlink, to see the two men. She reported that they were in good health and had no complaints about their treatment, but were still awaiting trial. The Mojahedin dismissed her comments as lies and persisted in their tale that the men were being tortured and faced execution. Our current visit to Evin prison would test that assertion.
Ebrahim Khodabandeh was in good health. At 51 years old, he certainly looked much more relaxed and healthy than the last time I had seen him two years previously while still a member of the Mojahedin. At that time he weighed only 6.5 stones and appeared haggard and ill, with a haunted look about him. Now looking fit and well-fed, he smiled and talked confidently and openly about his experiences, from his arrest to his current treatment in the notorious Evin prison.
Jamil Bassam arrived soon after. The same age as Ebrahim he also looked and sounded to be in good health though he appeared a little more reserved. We were able to ask them about their treatment and prison conditions. Both are being held in the same reasonably sized cell and have access to all Iranian newspapers, as well as whatever foreign publications are available in Iran. They have seven television channels [convicted prisoners also have access to a computer, though not internet] and are allowed to visit their families inside and outside prison on request. Both men reported that they were able to telephone their families in Iran within three days of their arrival in Iran and shortly afterwards were taken home on visits. Ebrahim has also been in regular telephone contact with his daughter in the UK since September 2003, three months after they arrived in Evin. His daughter and her family had been to visit Ebrahim just before our trip and he had been able to spend every day with them for two weeks. Ebrahim has three grandchildren.
We talked to Ebrahim and Jamil for over half an hour before being introduced to ten more prisoners who had been arrested while with the Mojahedin organisation. These were brought into the room in twos and in turn each told their stories. They spoke variously of their recruitment into the Mojahedin, the activities they undertook on behalf of the organisation and the relationship the organisation had with them, which was described in various detail by them all and described by one prisoner as a form of brutal brainwashing. Their accounts moved and disturbed us. They spoke with a passion which was palpably genuine and not as a result of duress. One prisoner in particular spoke for all when he directly addressed the MPs and pleaded with them to help others still inside the Mojahedin. He told them, "the Mojahedin puts on a respectable face in the west and collect signatures from politicians, and that support is used directly against people like us in Iraq, they use this support to suppress us. They would tell us, ‘how dare you disobey us when western politicians approve us’. We beg you to use your position as MPs to make sure the Mojahedin are not able to get support from members of parliament based on their lies and deception." The MPs were both moved by this direct appeal.
These prisoners differed from Ebrahim and Jamil in that they had been arrested inside Iran whilst carrying out terrorist acts against various targets. While Ebrahim and Jamil are still on remand awaiting trial on charges relating to membership of and aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation, the other prisoners had all been tried and sentenced for terrorist crimes. None of these sentences appeared excessive in relation to the serious nature of these crimes. The longest sentence of ten years in prison had been handed down to a man who, acting on orders from the Mojahedin leaders, had carried out ten terrorist attacks in Iran and killed several people in those attacks. Certainly, given the gravity of these actions, we were all surprised by his sentence, having expectation that ‘life’ would be the minimum the judicial system would award to a member of one of Iran’s most implacable enemies.
I spoke to one senior security officer after the meeting to seek an explanation for this apparent volte face in the way that the Mojahedin are being treated. I put it to him that in spite of the obviously stage managed nature of these prisoners’ speeches what came across was the sincerity and openness with which they spoke. How then did this fit in with the commonly held view, reinforced by the Mojahedin itself, that Mojahedin prisoners were automatically tortured and membership of the organisation carried a de facto death sentence.
The officer’s personal view was that over the past twenty three years, the severity of treatment meted out to the Mojahedin reflected the level of threat the organisation posed to the national security of the country, so that Massoud Rajavi's armed bid for power in the attempted 1981 coup led to a harsh crackdown as supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini fought to defend their Islamic Republic. The treachery of the Mojahedin during the eight year war with Iraq in which Rajavi acted as a mercenary for the Saddam regime also brought about the harshest treatment of captured Mojahedin. But as this threat waned from the late 1980s to the minimal that it is today, then the need to punish and wreak revenge on the perpetrators grew less. ‘It became clear to many of us’, he said, ‘that by suppressing our enemy we created more enemies. The Mojahedin were using the treatment of its prisoners [in Iranian jails] as a lever for recruitment. Talking to captured Mojahedin in our prisons we realised that they had been deceived into joining and that once inside the organisation they were forced to accept a very one sided picture of events. Our view now is that these people are victims of the Mojahedin, not our enemies, and we should help them. The way we have chosen to do this is to allow them every opportunity to realise for themselves what the organisation has done to them and how, and why, and to make their own minds up about the truth and facts. We don’t expect them to agree with us or support the Islamic Republic, he said, but at least we expect them to see what is real and what isn’t.’
Our meeting with these prisoners certainly bore out the effectiveness of this policy. There was no sign that they were speaking under duress or seeking to lie in order to avoid mistreatment. Indeed Ebrahim now said that while he did not feel hatred for his erstwhile colleagues, he understood the culpability of the Rajavis to the extent that he rejected the organisation and would not return to it. On the other hand, Jamil was happy to state that he still regards himself as a member of the Mojahedin and that Iranian officials are fully aware of that. Both men have enjoyed equal opportunity to access information and the opinion of others, and had freely come to their different conclusions after their year in prison.
The other ten prisoners and Ebrahim spoke critically of the brainwashing and deception they had endured at the hands of the Mojahedin. At the same time, several, again including Ebrahim, spoke candidly of their continued rejection of Islamic rule and their belief in secular democracy. When asked by one of the MPs whether the Mojahedin would ever be instrumental in bringing this ideal to Iran, the prisoners unanimously expressed their belief that Massoud Rajavi would introduce a dictatorship even more bloody than that which he opposed.
After spending five hours in the prison talking and listening, the visitors left for perhaps an even more extraordinary event as both MPs and myself were taken to dinner in a first class Tehran restaurant along with Ebrahim, who came escorted by a minder. With us were a translator and another minder. We were shortly joined by Mr Naraghi, a well-known writer and advisor to the UN, an outspoken critic of the Islamic Republic, who also acts as an aide to Mrs Shirin Ebadi. (This was surely a gesture by Iran’s security officials to indicate the Islamic Republic’s burgeoning confidence in tolerating political dissent.) Mr Naraghi presented Ebrahim with a signed copy of his book Azadi [Freedom].
Over dinner, with the minders at one end of the table enjoying their dinner, the MPs and Mr Naraghi were able to converse freely with Ebrahim and to elicit his views on various topics.
I also took the opportunity at various times during my visit, to speak to Ebrahim without the near presence of minders. On one occasion I asked him whether he wasn't impatient to be tried so that at least the sentence he faced would be clear. Ebrahim told me he was in no hurry. Whatever his sentence was, he said, he believed he would be spending at least another year in prison. ‘I need time anyway’, he told me, ‘to adjust my thinking. I’m not ready to be released now, I need to get the Mojahedin out of my system before I can think of getting on with my life in the outside world.’
Officials hinted that Ebrahim and Jamil would face only a light prison sentence for their involvement with the Mojahedin and that that remission would be granted for good behaviour. The officials stressed however that a prisoner’s statement of contrition or of their continued support for the opposition organisation had no bearing on the legal process and both men would undergo a fair trial with proper legal representation of their own choice. But the officials stressed that it was important that the men be given every opportunity to come to a genuine realisation and understanding of the behaviour of the Mojahedin toward them and their relationship with the organisation, and to choose freely whether to continue their support for the organisation or to reject their involvement. Past experience had shown, they said, that this would be a significant factor in the men’s ability to get on with their lives successfully after their release from prison. ‘It really comes down to whether they can stand on their own two feet or not’, one minder told me.
Ebrahim was clear about this when I spoke to him. He said both he and Jamil, although they hadn’t chosen to end up in prison, felt that somehow they had been saved by this action. Both men, he explained, felt they were safer in prison than if they had remained in Iraq to become hostages of Massoud Rajavi in his power games, or if they had remained in Europe and been asked to burn themselves on behalf of Maryam Rajavi [to exert pressure on the French government not to pursue due legal process].
On the five hour flight back to England I had time to think back on my visit. I reflected that long as my own journey was, the prisoners I left behind and the officials of the Islamic Republic had all traversed a much longer journey than I could have ever hoped to imagine before last week.