Where Iran's Regime Learned Its Tricks

Iran's torture practices are even worse than the beatings on YouTube. Daily Beast contributor and human rights lawyer Scott Horton on the nation's most notorious torturer.

Since June 14, Iran has witnessed a mass popular uprising against a fraudulent election, which bears some close comparisons with the one that toppled the shah in 1979. But the enthusiasm and resolve of the Green Revolution has been held in check by the brutal tools of a sophisticated police state that learned from the shah’s equivocation. The tools used so far and those now in planning allow us to sketch the outlines of the Khamenei police state. They also allow us better to understand what the opposition means when it calls for the restoration of the rule of law in Iran.

One name now circulates: Saaed Mortazavi, nicknamed the “Butcher.” He is now expected to be given the protesters’ cases with a special mandate to deal with them swiftly.

Organized Police Violence

Iran’s theocratic state has a number of police organizations that serve overlapping but different functions. It has conventional police officers, who are frequently characterized by protesters as more moderate and restrained. An informal, youthful paramilitary police called the Basij have carried much of the brunt of the effort to suppress demonstrators. The Basij are controlled by the Iranian Republican Guard and are under the authority and control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—with personal loyalty to Khamenei a principal criterion for recruitment of members. Before the uprising, the Basij’s major function consisted of enforcing rules of public morality—requiring women, for instance, to wear the hijab in public, collecting and destroying pornography, and monitoring for and destroying satellite dishes. The use of truncheons and physical brutality are Basij signatures.

These informal militias have been boosted dramatically in recent weeks with fresh recruits who have been told that the demonstrators are bent on toppling the state. They have been given full license to use harsh force to put the demonstrations down. Roozonline, a Farsi Internet newspaper, recently featured an interview with one of the new recruits. Here’s a summary by The Guardian’s Robert Tait of the interview:

“The man, who has come from a small town in the eastern province of Khorasan and has never been in Tehran before, says he is being paid 2m rial ($200) to assault protesters with a heavy wooden stave. He says the money is the main incentive as it will enable him to get married and may even enable him to afford more than one wife. Leadership of the volunteers has been provided by a man known only as ‘Hajji,’ who has instructed his men to ‘beat the counter-revolutionaries so hard that they won’t be able to stand up.’ The volunteers, most of them from far-flung provinces such as Khuzestan, Arak, and Mazandaran, are being kept in hostel accommodation, reportedly in east Tehran. Other volunteers, he says, have been brought from Lebanon, where the Iranian regime has strong allies in the Hezbollah movement. They are said to be more highly paid than their Iranian counterparts and are put up in hotels. The last piece of information seems to confirm the suspicion of many Iranians that foreign security personnel are being used to suppress the demonstrators. For all his talk of the legal process, this interview provides a key insight into where Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, believes the true source of his legitimacy rests.”

Iranian authorities deny that orders have been issued to use lethal force against the demonstrators, but at a minimum many dozens of cases have been recorded in which protesters or individuals in crowds were shot or beaten to death. One particularly gruesome incident reported on June 25 near the Iranian parliament documented a militiaman wielding an ax to hack victims to pieces. Apparent evidence of his work can be viewed here.

Police suppression techniques include use of tear gas and helicopters dumping burning liquid on protesters (likely tear gas compounds suspended in water). Police also use cameras and other imaging devices to make images of the protesters for use in their later identification and arrest. The regime also uses torture.

Torture and Forced Confessions

What happens to the thousands of protesters who are being carted away by the police and militia? The Iranian state has long had a predilection for torture; the overthrow of the shah and arrival of the Islamic republic produced only a slight modulation of the techniques.

Salon.com has recently published a detailed account of a 17-year-old who was seized last week by Basij militiamen and tortured:

“One of them asked me if [the former reformist president] Khatami would come save us, while they were breaking my fingers and cutting the finger webs. Although I swore a thousand times that I had not voted and had never participated in any demonstration, they didn’t care and just kept beating me hard. I fainted once or twice but there were 20 some of us who fainted every time their bones were broken, and as soon as they gained their consciousness, the riot police started beating them again. I was trying to contract my muscles to avoid further bone fracture. This continued till around 1 p.m., when they took us to another place, where security guards were in charge. We were then interrogated by the militia. Again, they kept beating me although I told them that I have never participated in any demonstration. In general, they were less harsh than the previous ones. In the evening, we were transferred to a police station where normal police with green uniforms hung us by our hands (you can see the signs of the string around my wrists on the pictures), they hung some of us upside down and started beating us again.” (The Salon.com account is accompanied by photographs evidencing the injuries the narrator sustained and can be viewed here:

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Torture is generally being applied with two primary objectives—to force prisoners to identify others involved in the demonstrations and coerce false confessions. The protesters are compelled to state that they went to demonstrations against the government because they fell under the influence of foreign media (aping comments by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other government figures, pointing to the Persian-language service of the BBC as a particularly favored whipping boy). On June 23, Iranian state television produced a parade of apprehended demonstrators who offered up crudely staged confessions. “I think we were provoked by networks like the BBC and [Voice of America] to take such immoral actions,” one young man stated. A woman followed him, saying that she “was influenced by VOA Persian [service] and the BBC because they were saying that the security forces were behind most of the clashes.”

As usual, torture is used to develop false information that works as domestic propaganda. The claim that foreign news services are the principal instigators serves several goals. First, it will provide a basis for criminal charges against protest leaders like Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Under Iran’s Law of Discretionary Punishment ( Qanon-e Ta’zir), “consorting with foreign powers” is a crime subject to severe punishment. It can and frequently is elevated to a more formal criminal charge of “espionage,” in which case the death penalty can be sought. But in the Iranian system, insulting government leaders, convening unlawful meetings, and making false statements to the government are also punishable crimes. Second, it can provide a basis to prosecute not only the protester who made the confession, but also those who were identified by him or her as participants. But most important, it is used to fuel the Khamenei regime’s propaganda that the opposition is controlled by evil foreign powers, especially the United States and Great Britain. The notion of a grave threat from abroad is the whip that Iranian governments have used since the reign of Ayatollah Khomeini to silence critics and govern with an iron fist.

Swift Justice

Rumors surge in Tehran about how the regime will deal with the protesters who are now being held. A special court will be created, it is widely expected. In the Iranian system, the courts are creatures of the supreme leader, and judges are generally clerics known for their personal loyalty to him. Special-purpose courts can be created and unwound as it suits the leader.

One name now circulates: Saaed Mortazavi, nicknamed the “Butcher.” Mortazavi is now expected to be given the protesters’ cases with a special mandate to deal with them swiftly. Mortazavi is a well-known name in Western circles. As the prosecutor-general of Tehran, he has demonstrated a penchant for going after bloggers and those who traffic in the Internet, as well as a special disdain for Barbie dolls, which he sees as insidious tools of Western corruption.

Mortazavi is associated with one case in particular, that of Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi, who was arrested in 2003 after she took pictures of the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Kazemi died in prison and a medical examination revealed “obvious signs of torture, including a skull fracture, broken nose, crushed toe, missing fingernails, broken fingers, signs of brutal rape, marks from flogging, deep scratches on her neck, and severe abdominal bruising.” The Iranian government insisted her injuries were self-inflicted. Kazemi’s case was handled personally by Saaed Mortazavi.

The Long Wait and the Bullet Fee

In Iran today, families that have lost a loved one—disappeared without a trace—search hospitals, morgues, and police stations asking after the missing son or daughter. The Los Angeles Times reports on the hundreds who assemble every day at the gates of Evin Prison, seeking news of a missing person. Occasionally, the dreaded news is confirmed: There is a body to be picked up. Then the final indignity comes: the bullet fee. The Wall Street Journal reports on one such case:

“At the crack of dawn, his father began searching at police stations, then hospitals, and then the morgue. Upon learning of his son’s death, the elder Mr. Alipour was told the family had to pay an equivalent of $3,000 as a ‘bullet fee’—a fee for the bullet used by security forces—before taking the body back, relatives said. Mr. Alipour told officials that his entire possessions wouldn’t amount to $3,000, arguing they should waive the fee because he is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. According to relatives, morgue officials finally agreed, but demanded that the family do no funeral or burial in Tehran. Kaveh Alipour’s body was quietly transported to the city of Rasht, where there is family.”

This marks the revival of a practice from early days of the Islamic republic, when the death penalty was applied rampantly against those considered enemies of the regime. Their families were frequently asked to pay the costs associated with the execution in order to gain release of the body for a funeral. The bullet fee well symbolizes the harshness of a brutal police state that cloaks itself in the trappings of religion.

Scott Horton is a law professor and writer on legal and national security affairs for Harper's Magazine and The American Lawyer, among other publications.