Trapped in Iran’s dark legal labyrinth

Times Staff Writer

“YOU’RE free!” the cell leader at Evin prison told the inmate. “Get your stuff together.” Stephane Lherbier dared not trust them.

Lherbier, a 34-year-old Frenchman and operator of a charter boat, accidentally had wandered into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf during a fishing trip. For that, he had been locked up for 15 months in Iran, separated from his wife, Veronique, and their 3-year-old, Lola. Repeatedly, authorities had told him he was about to be released, only to dash his hopes in what he considered a form of psychological torture.

Court officers hustled him through quickie trials. Intelligence officers cloaked in darkness blindfolded him and subjected him to prolonged interrogations. He cried and begged for better treatment. Instead he found himself behind the giant gates of Evin, an imposing stone compound that has loomed large in the imaginations of Iranians since it was built by Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi more than 60 years ago.


An unknown number of Iranian political dissenters and at least three Iranian Americans seized by the government reside in Evin prison. Lherbier’s account of his time there, provided in lengthy interviews and corroborated by Western diplomats in Tehran, gives a rare look at one of the world’s most mysterious legal systems and the web of interrogation and imprisonment surrounding it.

Iranian officials insist the country’s record on prisons and adherence to human rights standards has improved markedly in the last few decades. They note that Lherbier was allowed a weeklong break from prison in the middle of his sentence.


The fish weren’t biting the morning of Nov. 29, 2005. Donald Klein, a 52-year-old German on vacation in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, had hired Lherbier to take him on a fishing trip in the gulf. Looking for better prospects, they motored by the tiny island of Abu Musa, about 50 miles from both Iran and Dubai. There, they were stopped by a gray, unflagged military boat equipped with a .20-caliber machine gun. Placed under arrest, they were flown to the Iranian city of Bandar Abbas and held at a military base.

For three days, their captors treated them politely and fed them well, although they could get no information and were not allowed to speak with each other, Lherbier said.

On the fourth day, Lherbier was awakened at 2 a.m. and taken to a room. The solidly built former factory worker was placed in a chair in a corner, facing the wall. He estimates there was silence for 15 minutes. Some people entered the room. Lherbier could not see faces as they began speaking in Persian to him.

Suddenly, someone pinched the back of his neck very hard and began screaming into his ear.

Lherbier thought he heard a gun cock. He winced in pain and cried for mercy. Everyone seemingly was speaking at once.


Through the chaos, a voice spoke in English, the first words Lherbier had been able to understand since he was arrested.

“He wants to kill you,” the voice told Lherbier. “He wants to cut your head off. And you can be sure that nobody will find your body.”

With that, the interrogations began.

The questioning lasted for hours over days, always starting after midnight. Officials drilled away, asking about Lherbier’s family, his friends, his youth in the southern French city of Lyon, his military service in a special French mountain unit, his lifelong passion for the sea and his decision to gamble his life savings on a charter fishing business in the Persian Gulf.

Interrogators accused him of being a spy, alleging that he worked for British intelligence. They said they knew he had been in Iraq twice for training, that Klein was a colonel and he a captain. The fishing business he started in Dubai earlier that year was a cover, the Iranians told him.

After five days, a doctor came to examine Lherbier and Klein. Their captors said the ordeal was over -- they could go. They put the pair of them in a car and drove them off the base.

“It’s been terrible,” Klein whispered to Lherbier as they left. “But at least we’ll be free now.”


Instead, the two men were taken to a different compound and locked inside windowless cells. Lherbier slept on a floor with filth and cockroaches, wrapping himself in a coarse, dirty blanket, trying to ignore the faint smell of chlorine. Silence stretched on for hours.

In the night, the men were once again dragged to interrogations.

Lherbier explained repeatedly that on his map, Abu Musa was marked as part of the United Arab Emirates. He said he was new to the gulf and didn’t know the island was among several claimed by both countries. He wrote down answers on sheets of paper. His interrogators angrily ripped them up.

WHEN Lherbier did not show up that first night, the manager of the hotel where his boat was anchored told Veronique the news was probably bad: Her husband had either been taken by pirates or arrested by the Iranian navy. The next day, when the Emirates’ coast guard couldn’t find Lherbier’s boat, officials said he probably had been arrested by the Iranians.

For five days, Veronique pressed French and Iranian diplomats for information, taking Lola in her arms to the Iranian Consulate. On the fifth day, the Iranian Foreign Ministry acknowledged that Iranian authorities had detained Lherbier and Klein.

“I felt relieved,” Veronique said. “It was the first I knew he was alive.”

But it was not until Christmas Day, nearly a month after the detention, that Veronique knew for sure. She was at home. Her cellphone rang. It was Stephane.

“I found his voice very strong,” she said. “I was afraid that he’d been completely destroyed.”


The call lasted less than a minute. “I cried,” she said. “I think I cried the whole day.”

In late January 2006, Veronique was allowed to travel to Bandar Abbas with Lola. The couple were allowed to spend an hour together in a courtroom. It was the first time Stephane had seen his charcoal-haired wife and brown-eyed daughter in two months. “It was very hard, but it was good,” Lherbier said. “It gave me hope.”

ALREADY, however, his hopes had been raised repeatedly and dashed.

On Dec. 10, Lherbier had been told that he would be given a military trial. Iranian officials sat him in an office and told him that if he confessed to being in Iranian territorial waters and paid a fine worth about $350, he would be freed.

All the documents were in Persian, but he quickly signed everything.

“After these 10 days, if it was 10 million euros, I would have said, ‘No problem, no problem,’ ” he said.

The next day he and Klein were given showers, fresh kebabs from a restaurant and full packs of cigarettes. Then they were told to make a videotape. They were placed together in front of a bunch of fake flowers, jugs of fruit juice and bowls of fruit and told to say everything had been great. Everyone got chummy. One investigator suggested Lherbier should start a sport fishing business in Iran. The man urged Klein, a stonemason, to invest in Iran.

“You know in Iran we have the best stones in the world,” he told them.

The next day, Jacques Pellet, a diplomat at the French Embassy in Tehran, greeted Lherbier in a government office in Bandar Abbas. He gave him a photo of Lola, a letter from his wife and the equivalent of about $110 in Iranian cash.

“I felt safer. Because I knew that everyone knew my story and that people were fighting for me,” Lherbier said.


Authorities told him once again that he was free, that it would just take a few days to resolve some bureaucratic matters in Tehran.

Six days later, however, they said authorities in Tehran had rejected the decision to release them. First, Lherbier and Klein would have to stand trial.

Lherbier described the trial and appeal, which stretched from January to March 2006, as a “joke” and was convinced once again that he would be released soon. Instead, he and Klein were sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In mid-March, the two men were taken to a plane and flown to Tehran. Again their spirits lifted. Perhaps, they dared to think, they had won their appeal and would be let go this time.

But they were driven from the airport to Evin, a fortified compound on the slopes of the Alborz Mountains, just north of Tehran.

The two men were stuffed into a single cell roughly 6 1/2 feet long by 6 feet wide. They tried to sleep on the cold concrete floor despite a light that was on 24 hours a day. A video camera was trained on them. Someone shoved food through the door three times a day; it was always rice. A hole behind a partition at one end of the room served as a toilet.


The pair took turns shuffling back and forth.

“It was impossible to breathe,” Lherbier said. “I thought I would die.”

After a week, a doctor examined them and told them the judge had rejected their appeal. They were fingerprinted and put for two days in a dank holding cell filled with violent criminals.

“Are you a Christian? Are you a Christian?” one prisoner asked Lherbier. “Pray for me! I am sentenced to death because I had an affair with a woman. Please pray for me!”

AS Lherbier soon learned, Evin is a vast complex made up of many sections, each different, each named by the internal telephone code.

Their first cell had been in Section 209, an infamous wing used to house political dissidents. Soon, however, they were sent to a less stringent section that housed mostly white-collar criminals.

They could call their families daily. Stephane heard that Lola put on a head scarf whenever she wanted to talk to her father, pretending to get ready to go to Iran.

Prisoners bought supplies using a debit card that was refilled by relatives on the outside. Lherbier and Klein bought coarse bedsheets for about a dollar each and wrapped them around wooden planks for makeshift mattresses on the bunk beds. They quickly discovered one could buy anything in Evin, including contraband.


“Opium, crack, ecstasy, cocaine -- everything you want,” Lherbier recalled.

For a fee, prison guards could arrange sexual encounters with female prisoners staying in another section of Evin, Lherbier said. The prison has its own school, hospital, concession shops and its own taxi service to shuttle prisoners, family members, employees and lawyers across the vast distances between the buildings.

“It’s like a city, this jail,” Lherbier said.

Iranians long ago nicknamed it the University of Evin because of the vibrant intellectual life within its gates. Lherbier got into the swing of it. He picked up some Persian words. A high school graduate, he began reading voraciously, including texts on ancient history as well as Ken Follett thrillers. He read books about Iran brought to him from the French Embassy, including “Guests of the Ayatollah,” Mark Bowden’s recent account about the taking of American hostages in 1979.

He smiled as the prisoners changed the television channel every time a cleric came on, and he chuckled at the nickname they gave Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Pinocchio.

He swam in a prison pool filled with cool, clean mountain water. But he stopped after he was told the pool had been used to execute political prisoners during the tumultuous first years of the Islamic Republic.

He befriended other inmates, including one French-speaking former IranAir executive who claimed he was in prison for refusing to bow to corruption, and Shahram Jazayeri, a well-connected businessman and political insider. A showboat, Jazayeri smuggled a fancy layered cake into Evin for Stephane’s birthday.

WORD of their predicament spread through Europe. Veronique started a website to promote her husband’s cause and collect funds to pay for his defense. On an April 2006 trip to Tehran, she visited Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, personally lobbying him for her husband’s release.


Every 15 days, guards would tell Lherbier and Klein they would be released in a week. As months passed, even some of the prison guards wondered aloud why they were being held so long. Western diplomats in Tehran suspect the two men were being kept as potential bargaining chips that the government could use to seek release of two alleged Iranian security service operatives held in prison in France and Germany for killing Iranian political dissidents in Europe.

On Feb. 25 of this year, Lherbier was on the phone with his mother when the captain of his prison cell suddenly told him he had five minutes to get ready to leave. “I didn’t believe it,” Lherbier said. “It was too fast.”

The prison yard was full of well-wishers. He made hasty goodbyes. His fellow inmates tossed sweets at him as he walked down the corridor, praising the prophet Muhammad and his descendants. “Azad! Azad!” the other prisoners cried. “Free! Free!” When he was fingerprinted and greeted by a French Embassy official, he finally believed he was about to be let go.

He flew to Dubai to rejoin his wife and daughter, and he agreed to discuss his experience after Klein was released later in the spring.

Lherbier harbors little, if any, bitterness about his experience. He said he would like to stay in the region, make another go at the fishing business. But for Veronique, the experience has been too much.

“I am not as strong as I was,” she said, her eyes watering. “I feel broken.”

Veronique, a native of the Caribbean island of Martinique, demanded that they get as far away as possible from this baffling part of the world, and he couldn’t argue. They’re moving back to the Caribbean, where they first met.


“Iran is terrible,” Lherbier said, “because you don’t know who decides.”