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Years of Torture in Iran Comes to Light

IHT Special

Years of Torture in Iran Comes to Light

Published: November 21, 2012

PARIS — Houshang Asadi was a Communist journalist thrown into the cold confines of Moshtarek prison in Iranwhen he found an unlikely friend in the tall, slender Muslim cleric who greeted him with a smile.

Imprisoned together in 1974, under the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, they found common ground in their passion for literature. They shared jokes, spoke of where they came from, their families and falling in love. Mr. Asadi, who did not smoke, would give cigarettes to his cellmate who, uncharacteristic of a cleric, did. On days when Mr. Asadi felt broken, he said, the cleric would invite him to take a walk in their cell to brighten his spirits.

So, when his release came six months later and the cleric stood cold and trembling, Mr. Asadi gave him his jacket. “At first he refused it, but I told him I was going to be released,” Mr. Asadi recalled. “Then we hugged each other and he had tears coming down his face. He whispered in my ear, ‘Houshang, when Islam comes to power, not a single tear will be shed from an innocent person.”’

What Mr. Asadi found unimaginable was that the cleric would become president of the Islamic Republic that later imprisoned him again, sentenced him to death and brutally tortured him for six years in the same prison. Today that same cleric is the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr. Asadi’s account of torture and imprisonment has offered a rare glimpse into what activists say was a decade of grave human rights violations in Iran. And at a time when international attention has shifted to the nuclear issue and sanctions, they say a campaign to bring justice and accountability through a symbolic tribunal has helped unite a once fractured opposition.

“I never expected he would get power, never,” said Mr. Asadi in an interview in Paris, where he lives in exile.

Mr. Asadi, a 63-year-old writer, journalist and former member of the Tudeh party, was routinely arrested and tortured under the shah. He had supported the revolution, so when he was arrested again in 1982 and accused of being a spy for the Russians and the British, he was convinced that it was a mistake.

In a plea for help, his wife wrote to Mr. Khamenei, who had risen to power as president after the Islamic revolution, but two weeks later the letter was returned with a note in the margin saying only that he had been aware of the journalist’s political beliefs. Mr. Asadi’s death sentence was reduced to 15 years in prison. During his time in prison, he again developed a relationship with the only person he had contact with — as he had done with Mr. Khamenei. This time it was with his torturer, a man he knew only as “Brother Hamid.”

“He is your torturer and he thinks he is your god, he thinks he is religious, he is pure, and you are evil, you are the enemy,” Mr. Asadi said. “So he can do anything to you.”

Mr. Asadi said he was called a “useless wimp” and hung by a chain attached to his arms twisted behind his back while the soles of his feet were whipped until he was unable to walk.

Brother Hamid forced him to bark like a dog to speak or when the pain was too much and he was ready to make confessions. His ears were hit and his teeth were broken. Mr. Asadi said he had even been forced to eat his own excrement and the excrement of fellow prisoners.

Beyond physical pain, he endured psychological torture. He was shown coffins and told his comrades had been killed. He would hear screams and was made to believe his wife was being tortured in the cell next to him.

Allowed sporadic visits of only 15 minutes, his wife said his torment was evident. “I didn’t recognize him,” Nooshabeh Amiri, Mr. Asadi’s wife, said of her first visit, six months after his arrest. “He was fat, he was dirty, he had a long beard. But especially in his eyes, they were not the same. You could see that nothing passed through; it was just fear and being helpless.”

Ms. Amiri, who was initially arrested with Mr. Asadi and released the same day, said her husband’s imprisonment had also changed her. “The person who was inside of me before was a happy person. I loved life. But suddenly, I became older. It is not just the prisoners who are being disturbed. Families suffer, too.”

The torture continued daily for six years, until he was abruptly pulled out of his cell in 1988 when the supreme leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the mass killing of thousands of political prisoners. Prisoners were asked three questions concerning their religious faith and loyalty to the regime. “If you answered no to any question, they killed you,” Mr. Asadi said. “I lied to save my life.”

In 2009, he published his memoir, “Letters to My Torturer,” detailing the relationship that grew between him and Brother Hamid. He hopes to find an American film company to bring his story to a wider audience.

“It’s hard for me to talk about even today,” said Mr. Asadi, who had a heart attack while writing the book, provoked by the stress of recalling his imprisonment. “But this is something that the world needs to know about.


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