Iranian Political Prisoners Tell their Stories from the Inside

Political prisoners tell their tales of torture and solitude as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied imprisoning people for political reasons in a speech at the U.N. Tuesday. But these personal tales of torture from the inside say something different..

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York for the U.N. General Assembly while Abdollah Momeni will have been in prison for over a year. A student activist, Momeni is one of thousands of political prisoners who have been arrested in the last year—and one of few who has written and posted his experiences online for all to see.

In one letter from Iran’s notorious Evin prison, which has housed political dissidents for decades, he writes:

“My interrogator suffocates me regularly with his bare hands until I faint; I could neither eat nor drink for days; however, I am not the only one who suffers from these torture sessions, for I recall noticing cuts on the interrogator’s hands after he hit me on the mouth and teeth repeatedly…

The width of the cell was shorter than my height, and I could only lay down in one position. There was a metal bucket placed over a sewage hole, to make a makeshift toilet where we could relieve ourselves. A water faucet was placed over this makeshift toilet so that the prisoner would not have to be brought out of his cell for basic needs…”

Once out of solitary, other prisoners told Momeni that their interrogation sessions were scheduled for them to hear his screams, “to inflict emotional pressure on them.”

“The days of my 25th year pass in a corner of prison.”

So as the world celebrated an American hiker’s release from the same Iranian prison last week and now focuses on the release of her friend and her fiancé, hundreds of Iranian political prisoners like Momeni remain in prison without the benefit of global attention.

Mahdieh Golroo, another student activist, has been in prison for 10 months. She was convicted, in a closed-door trial, of propaganda against the state, a sentence regularly used for those who criticize the government, and is spending two years and four months in prison.

She recently wrote a love letter to her husband for their wedding anniversary from her prison cell, where she has spent over a month in solitary confinement. Her words quickly circulated on Facebook and on the Web. She writes in Farsi:

“The days of my 25th year pass in a corner of prison. Days have been lost, and the bitterness grows on my tongue. My freedom has faded … in prison, evenings are heavy and the nights squeeze one’s soul. If you see sorrow in my eyes, it’s not mine. My sorrow is no more than the sorrow that lives outside these walls, where injustices have made life unbearable; yet here, it is only my distance from you that makes me cringe. Here, nobody loves anyone more than freedom... but I do…

"I know that doubt becomes a weight on your shoulders, and your hope will be lost in defeat. But it's at this moment that you must remember that it is the fight for a better life that makes us alive, although it may not give us a 'living.' Today we are far apart, I am afraid you will think I have chosen my rights over our love, but your love was part of the many rights that I have been denied, while I am full of desire for you and pregnant with changes to come.”

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In the meantime, the Iranian judiciary diverted the world’s attention to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman who has been on death row since 2006 for adultery and being an accomplice to murder. She was originally sentenced to stoning by death, triggering a global campaign for her release that has delayed her execution thus far. But knowing how sex sells, the Iranian government fanned the flames by calling out Carla Bruni as one whore defending another, causing yet more global outrage while Iran continues to imprison their own nameless people.

And as the world gobbles up the government line, student activist Majid Tavakoli has spent a total of more than 200 days in solitary confinement. He is serving a prison sentence of eight-and-half years for vague reasons, like “insulting” the supreme leader. He has developed respiratory problems after spending four months in tomb-like solitude. In objection to his mistreatment, Tavakoli began a hunger strike, and after five days his brother reported that he was bleeding from ulcers and has lost his capability to speak.

Tavakoli regularly writes letters from prison that are then smuggled out, by other prisoners or prison guards sympathetic to the movement, and published online. In his latest, he wrote:

“Iran’s first and foremost problem is human rights, and the world should put this at the top of its agenda while confronting the Iranian regime. The regime will do anything in order to divert international attention from human rights to nuclear issues.”

Along with Tavakoli, 16 other prisoners of conscience staged a hunger strike last month, demanding better treatment and the release of photojournalist Babak Bordbar, who was later released.

But still, did their message truly reach the world?

Noble laureate Shirin Ebadi (whose own lawyer has also been harassed and arrested) said at the time, “Seventeen political prisoners went on hunger strike and almost died, but unfortunately this issue was not given enough attention neither internationally nor domestically, for the story of Sakineh Ashtiani was pushed forward by the Intelligence Ministry and caused us to forget the larger issue.”

If Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, the two American hikers still awaiting their release from Iran, are having as hard of a time as their Iranian counterparts, then they are having a hard time indeed.

Jason Shams is an American-Iranian who has spent most of his life in Iran. He has worked as translator, interpreter, journalist, and political analyst in Iran for more than 20 years. He moved to the United States in November after being part of the Green Movement.