Imprisoned Iranian protesters share a bond forged in hell

"What is this place?" the guard shouted.

"The end of the world!" the prisoners replied.

"Are you happy with the food?" he demanded.

"Yes, sir!" they answered.

"Have you been tamed?" he asked.

"Yes, sir!"

As ordered, they answered as one. And over the next five hellish days, they forged a bond that would remain even when they were freed. Cut off from the world, the 147 Iranian protesters rounded up during a July 9 demonstration in Tehran and stuffed into the notorious Kahrizak prison found they could rely only on themselves.

At first some of the prisoners hogged the space in their cramped cell or stretched their legs out. But as hours turned into days, they all began to cooperate.

"As our stay in Kahrizak lingered, a trust grew among us, and the selfish inmates were outnumbered by the unselfish ones," recalled Hatef, 22, who asked that his last name not be used out of fear for his safety.

He was among several former detainees, their lawyers and relatives who provided a rare inside account of a prisoner abuse scandal that continues to serve as a rallying point.

Some of the protesters had been horribly beaten even before they arrived at Kahrizak, and the prisoners banded together to care for the most seriously wounded: the aspiring filmmaker, the nephew of one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's security chiefs, the son of a conservative politician.

On Thursday nights, the evening Iranians devote to the souls of the dead, some of the former detainees contact one another via coded text messages.

And they meet at the cemetery to honor the dead of Kahrizak.

Thrown together

It began in a police station courtyard.

Their legs lashed together with electrical cables, the demonstrators -- part of the protest movement that sprang up after June's disputed presidential election -- were lined up while a judge read out the charges: acting against national security, arson, damaging public property, clashing with law enforcement and colluding with foreign news media.

"All of you will stay in jail at Kahrizak and by the end of summer you will be tried in court," said the judge, identified -- by two of the former detainees and an attorney pursuing legal action -- as Sohrab Heydarifard, deputy to Saeed Mortazavi, the notorious former Tehran prosecutor general.

They signed the confessions they were ordered to sign. At 5 p.m., they were placed on buses and driven out of town toward the desert, said Saleh Nikbakht, an attorney who is pursuing a case on behalf of the family of one of the detainees.

Security forces ordered them not to look out the windows. They drove south of the city to a barren stretch of land about 10 miles from the city center. Still handcuffed, they were ordered to get out and squat in the dirt. Later, they were ordered to strip and put on prison uniforms.

The young men were hustled into a metal cell of about 700 square feet. There were no beds, so the prisoners tried to sleep on the ground or on filthy, bug-infested pieces of carpeting. The toilet was a hole in the ground. By evening they numbered 180 to 190, as common criminals joined the protesters, and the July heat radiated off the room's tin walls.

"Some of us fainted, as there was no ventilation and the weather was hot," Hatef said.

But at night the desert heat receded and the room became bone-chillingly cold.

They tried to drink the fetid, salty water that smelled of urine, when it was even available, but wound up mostly using it to cool and clean themselves.

Exhaust from generators outside came into the room when the wind shifted. "The inside of our cell was from time to time unbearably polluted," Hatef said.

The guards said the food rations would be given only to the criminals, not the protesters. The few demonstrators who spoke out were ordered to walk on all fours.

On the second day at Kahrizak, two or three dozen more inmates were added to the room. They had come from a place the guards called "the cage," for inmates thought to be suffering from infectious diseases.

"They were zombies more than human beings," Hatef said.

Beatings and abuse

Over the five days, beatings came regularly -- when someone complained or whenever the guards felt like it. To make an example of an inmate who protested about the conditions, guards hung him by his ankles and beat him with plastic pipes.

Amir Javadifar, a young filmmaker and actor, had been badly beaten even before he got to Kahrizak, and his condition worsened.

"From the first night in Kahrizak, he lost sight of one of his eyes due to being battered by a hard object, as later we would see in the report of forensic doctors examining his dead body," Nikbakht said. At night, the soldiers stomped on the tin roof, or smashed the walls with their batons or the butts of their rifles. "The noise drove us crazy," Hatef said.

One morning early in the detention they awoke to find Mohammad Kamrani, a nephew of an official working in Ahmadinejad's office, in dire condition.

"He was unconscious," Hatef said.

They also found that they couldn't revive Mohsen Ruholamini, the son of a political advisor to one of Iran's top conservative politicians. The guards had been pounding on him.

"He was suffering from a broken head due to being hit by a plastic pipe," Hatef said.

The guards showed no mercy to those who were already badly injured.

"Amir was reportedly fainting, but his torturers said that he was acting and beat him more," Nikbakht said.

Hossein, 30, said he was beaten several times simply because he didn't reply to questions fast enough.

"When they were taking roll call, we were expected to call out clearly our full names and answer by our father's name," said Hossein, who is pursuing a legal case against his former jailers. He also asked that his last name not be published. "As I failed to answer promptly, I was beaten on my palms. Six strikes with a pipe was standard punishment."

Over the course of the five days and nights, before they were transferred to another facility, the prisoners tended to one another's wounds. "They were ready to help in the hot weather all day long to fill the plastic bottle with tap water and pass it down to the thirsty and weaker inmates or fan them with a piece of cardboard to cool them," he recalled.

Hossein befriended Javadifar and tried to help him forget his pain. The young man told Hossein he dreamed of making documentaries. He'd already made 11 short films and was gathering money for a feature film.

"Everybody forgot their suffering and worried about him," Hossein said.

Refusing to be quiet

The story of Kahrizak might have disappeared without a trace if not for the high-profile connections of some of the prisoners.

The well-known Iranian photographer Saeed Sadeghi approached supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei one day in mid-July and disclosed a secret.

The two had met at the front during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, when Khamenei was president of Iran. Now Sadeghi had become a supporter of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and was among the protesters arrested and taken to a place so horrid that he could barely mention its name without weeping: Kahrizak.

He wasn't the only detainee with such connections. Word of three deaths at Kahrizak began to slip out, among them that of Ruholamini, the son of prominent scientist and political advisor Abdul-Hossein Ruholamini.

Kamrani, 18, also had family ties to the elite. He died shortly after his family found him at a hospital.

Javadifar, 24, was dead by July 14, but the family didn't find out until July 25, Nikbakht said. "His father and brother were searching for him and went to any place they could get any news about him," the attorney said.

Finally, the police called the elder Javadifar and told him to come fetch his son.

"When the father went, the police officer was kind now and wanted to be affable and mollify the father, and finally said, 'Your son is dead.' "

The cause of death was blunt trauma injury from severe beating, according to an autopsy report obtained by The Times.

Twelve law enforcement officials, including two ranking officers, are in military custody awaiting trial, Nikbakht said.

On July 28, officials announced that Khamenei had ordered Kahrizak closed, labeling it a substandard facility.

'Agony and ordeals'

Once word about the conditions spread, lawmakers called for the arrest of those responsible. Opposition figure Mehdi Karroubi alleged that some prisoners had been raped, an accusation corroborated by former inmates who came forward. Some of the ex-prisoners and their families began hiring lawyers.

"I am still obsessed with the agony and ordeals of the late Amir," Hossein said.

A parliamentary committee assigned to investigate Kahrizak released a report in January implicating former prosecutor-general Mortazavi as the man behind the abuses.

The report alleged that law enforcement officials kept the 147 protesters in unhygienic conditions and encouraged guards and "violent thugs" to harshly beat them.

"The main reason behind opening the facility was to house dangerous criminals, rapists and hardened drug traffickers; therefore, transferring the detainees of postelection turmoil to this facility with a different crime is unjustifiable and the judiciary must be answerable," the report said.

But days before the report was issued, Ahmadinejad appointed Mortazavi his special advisor on smuggling, in effect attempting to shield him from any prosecution.

Remembrance

One by one as twilight fades, the former prisoners and some of their relatives gather at Behesht Zahra cemetery to honor those who lost their lives at Kahrizak and in demonstrations. Cloaked in darkness, they share news about their cases and about other former prisoners.

It is gray and drizzly when Hossein and Hatef and a dozen others arrive at Sections 211, 221 and 222 in the vast necropolis on the southern edge of the capital.

Ruholamini's grave still has not been entombed in marble, apparently on the insistence of his father, who says he will wait until his son's killer is brought to justice before he covers the site.

They spot Kamrani's father and siblings in Section 221. Everybody knows and greets one another. Kamrani's relatives are chanting verses from the Koran, rinsing Mohammad's grave with rose water and setting out candles despite the rain.

They offer well-wishers dates and hot tea out of a thermos.

"God willing, the Lord will avenge my son," Kamrani's father says.

They say the Kahrizak experience has only made them more determined. Few of the ex-inmates have given up their political activities. Hatef says he's trying to prepare for a long fight. When he sees the riot police approach at demonstrations, he draws comfort from a popular slogan that has become a signature of the protest movement.

"Don't be afraid, don't be afraid!" it goes. "We are all together."

daragahi@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

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