One year ago the Iranian government began a highly publicized trial of more than 100 people for their roles in the 2009 post-election unrest. The group included prominent political dissidents, as well as a number of ordinary people who had been arrested during the various demonstrations. Opposition leaders quickly condemned the proceedings as “show trials,” focusing their criticisms on the detention of well-known reformist politicians, such as Behzad Nabavi, Mohsen Mirdamadi and former vice-president Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, who reportedly confessed to conspiring to misrepresent the vote as a fraud. By contrast, little attention was paid to the low-profile defendants who stood in the shadows.
While the prosecution of major political opponents had much to do with settling scores and was otherwise understandable from a political point of view, the motivations behind choosing the remaining defendants, from a pool of at least 4,000 detainees, were not fully apparent. A closer look at these ordinary prisoners and their encounters with the Iranian security apparatus reveals much both about the government’s strategies for maintaining political and social control, as well as the effectiveness of these measures. Such an examination also sheds light on the challenges facing a new generation of politically active Iranian citizens and is useful in delineating the possibilities for internal change within the Islamic Republic.
Opposition, Imprisonment and the 1999 Student Protests
To understand the real threats facing any government, one should consider the numbers and composition of its political prisoners. During the first decade of the Islamic Republic, the majority of political prisoners belonged to leftist and communist organizations such the Hezb-e Tudeh, the Fedayan-e Khalq and, in particular, the Mojahedin-e Khalq. Members of these groups posed a real threat insofar as they were able to articulate a coherent ideology, were well organized, and possessed revolutionary credentials. By the late 1980s, the Islamic Republic had essentially neutralized these groups, thanks to its effective use of intimidation, torture, forced confessions and, ultimately, the infamous purge of its prisons.
By the late 1990s, however, things had changed, with the government shifting its focus to the growing political mobilization occurring on Iran’s university campuses. When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei assumed the position of Supreme Leader in 1989, the Islamic Republic was without a viable domestic opposition. The ensuing period of relative calm, which allowed the regime to consolidate its power and pursue its policies with little hindrance, lasted until the rise of the reformists and the bloody student uprising of 1999. In July of that year, widespread and violent public protests were sparked by the closing of the newspaper Salam and were fuelled by a raid on a student dormitory in Tehran. Once demonstrations began to spread to other campuses and threatened to turn into a general uprising, the regime quickly mobilized to re-establish order across the country.
Security and intelligence forces began intimidating and interrogating students, as well as leaders of splinter groups such as the organizations of Manouchehr Mohammadi and Heshmatollah Tabarzadi. They also used the occasion to clamp down on the activities of other opposition groups such as the Nation of Iran Party (Hezb-e Mellat-e Iran), the Freedom Movement of Iran (Nehzat-e Azadi-ye Iran), and the National Front (Jebh-e Melli Iran). In addition to an estimated 2,000 arrests, there were wide reports of abuse, torture and disappearances. Even though most of the detainees were eventually released, a number of students were handed long prison terms while others, such as Ahmad Batebi, were sentenced to death (though his sentence was later commuted to 15 years in prison).
These measures were intended to send a stern message to protestors and to terrify opposition groups and individuals who were mobilizing for change outside of the system. The government painted the protestors as liberal and secular “outsiders” bent on destroying the regime, accusation that gained a strong foothold when Iran’s reformist President Mohammad Khatami demonstrated his unwillingness to come to their defense. While the regime was thus able to quell the protests and restore relative calm, the events laid the foundations for an independent student movement that gained momentum in the ensuing years. Batebi and others represented a new generation of student protestors who were both products of the Islamic Republic, and increasingly connected to the demands of Iranian civil society. Ten years later, in June 2009, these individuals and many like them would turn out in greater numbers, with the support of diverse swaths of the population. From then on, they could no longer be dismissed by the government as troublemakers on the fringes of Iranian society. They were now one of the Islamic Republic’s most powerful and immediate threats.
The 2009 Demonstrations
The massive protests following the controversial re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 were the largest of their kind in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Given the size of the demonstrations, the diversity of the groups involved and the establishment credentials of its supporters (such as presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi), it was difficult for the regime to discredit the Green Movement out of hand. In fact, the strategies employed to combat the protests, the commitment of atrocities at detention centers like Kahrizak, and the relatively long duration of unrest indicate that the regime had a good deal of difficulty in suppressing the movement.
Aside from the high profile political figures who were individually targeted, most protestors were arrested en masse during the demonstrations. The two main security forces dealing with arrests and interrogations were the Basij militia, who reported to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the most powerful wing of Iran’s military establishment, and agents of the Ministry of Intelligence, who answered to superiors within their institution. According to reliable sources interviewed for this article, the detainees were then taken to various detention centers around Tehran to be “sorted.” Their initial destinations were mostly dependent on the security forces responsible for their arrest.
Facing a large number of detainees and a limited amount of space, authorities had to choose which prisoners to keep and which to release. During the “first round,” those who were deemed more “seriously involved” in the demonstrations were separated from those perceived to have been “caught up in the moment.” The latter were released after a short detention, while the former were taken to other prisons for a second round of processing.
At this stage, detainees were again divided up, this time according to the circumstances of their arrest. Those in possession of photos and videos, as well as those considered to be “leaders,” were deemed to be the most threatening. They were taken to other detention centers and eventually transferred to Evin prison, Iran’s most notorious prison for political detainees. One interviewee was taken to a Ministry of Intelligence holding station, transferred to a police station, followed by another small prison before finally ending up at Evin.
Inside Evin, the majority of detainees were held in Section 240, a section reserved for political prisoners, for a quarantine period of three to four days. According to interviews, as many as 8 or 9 people could occupy a single cell in unsanitary and often dangerous conditions. The prisoners were then redistributed to other sections of Evin to be prepared for interrogation. The assignment of sections was based on the circumstances of arrest, the level of suspicion, the amount of available evidence, and, most importantly, the arresting apparatus. Individuals apprehended by the Ministry of Intelligence, for example, we kept in Section 209. Others were taken to Section 350, dubbed by some as the Green section, or to the infamous Section 2A, which is run by the IRGC. After the prisoners were assigned to their respective sections, the authorities would conduct systematic interrogations designed to build legal cases against detainees with little to no political profile.
Fragmented Security Apparatus and the Kahrizak Revelations
The regime’s tactic of arresting people en masse and processing them later suggests that the security forces did not have a clear idea as to the appropriate targets, and, more specifically, as to which individuals constituted a threat to the establishment. In large part, this confusion was likely a result of the fragmentation between the groups conducting the arrests. Though there was loose coordination between the activities of the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence, both of which are under the direct control of the Supreme Leader’s intelligence agency, the two groups in no way adhered to a coherent and unified mission in dealing with the post-election unrest. Far from being a monolithic entity, the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence have historically engaged in an intense rivalry since the latter’s establishment in 1984. Not only do their orders emanate from separate authorities with distinct objectives, but their training methods are also vastly different. The result is a fragmented security apparatus that in many ways has and continues to manifest the fierce competition playing out in the higher echelons of the government establishment.
The proliferation of the Iranian security apparatus and the complexity of its chain of command are other factors contributing to this fragmentation. While the commanders of the IRGC report directly to the office of the Supreme Leader, the forces under their control, such as the extensive Basij militia, are much more loosely organized at the local level. Lack of proper coordination can hinder the regime’s efforts at maintaining control and, at times, cause it a good deal of embarrassment.
The revelations of torture and sexual misconduct at Kahrizak detention center were a case in point. Built in 2001 in the south of Tehran, near the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, the Kahrizak detention center has an official capacity of 50 prisoners and consists of underground cells, without access to fresh air and toilet facilities. Since its construction, Kharizak has been used by the judiciary as a temporary prison for dangerous common criminals. However, during the post-election crackdown, and particularly following the July 9, 2009 demonstrations marking the tenth anniversary of the 1999 student uprising, many political detainees were crammed into Kahrizak’s harsh confines. After the release of some prisoners on July 28, 2009, reports of the prison’s squalid conditions and the sexual abuse and torture of detainees began to circulate. The deaths of two prisoners at Kahrizak, as a result torture and severe beatings, took on added significance after revelations that they had hailed from prominent conservatives families. The resulting tide of anger, which spread across the political spectrum, featured condemnations by conservative politicians, such as 2009 Presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei, and leading clerics such as Ayatollah Montazeri. As a result, the Supreme Leader was forced to close the detention center and the notorious Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran’s public prosecutor, was removed from his post for his alleged role in the Kharizak affair.
Although reports of atrocities in Iran’s prisons have been streaming out for years, Kharizak was particularly sensational because of its timing and the government’s response. After first denying and then attempting to cover up the incident, authorities were forced to admit guilt and subsequently scrambled to right the ship. For a regime that had consistently denied torturing its prisoners and refused to take responsibility for deaths in its prisons, this was a significant reversal. The incident re-ignited public discontent at a critical juncture and no doubt contributed to the prolongation of unrest. Admission of abuse and torture also cast doubt on the validity of the upcoming trial of 100 post-election detainees, which the regime would attempt to use to discredit the opposition.
Trial of 100
The regime’s initial response to the unrest may have been disorganized and chaotic, but the next phase of its approach was carefully planned. In the month following the mass arrests, the regime allowed its prosecutors to choose defendants from the swelling ranks of prisoners and to prepare them for mass trial.
The first session of the trial of 100 was held on August 1, 2009 in a packed Tehran courtroom. The prosecutors began proceedings by naming a number of conspirators allegedly involved in the unrest but not present in the courtroom, including Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and Stanford University professor Abbas Milani. By the end of the first day, which was highlighted by wide-reaching accusations and the confession of Abtahi, the purpose behind the trial became evident. The trials would be used not solely to curb post-election demonstrations and punish their participants, but also to confront and attack all the government’s enemies, from various domestic opposition groups to Israel and the CIA. Even if the trials’ legitimacy was irrevocably undermined by the actions of security forces and the revelations of abuse and torture at Kahrizak and other prisons, the proceedings nonetheless provided the regime an opportunity to send a strong message to its opponents.
Given the domestic publicity surrounding the trial, including broadcasts on state television, the most important target of the government’s thinly-veiled threats may have been the civilian population at large. The government’s decision to increase the number of defendants to 100 from the previously announced 20, of whom most were low profile defendants, betray these possible motives. These ordinary individuals hailed from a variety of backgrounds and in many ways constituted a microcosm of the Iranian population, including the young and old, liberal and conservative, Shi’ite and secular, and even religious minorities. The group’s diversity, which seemed to have been intentionally and meticulously orchestrated, was an indication of the regime’s desire to deliver a very broad and serious message to the masses.
Information from sources close to these events corroborates the existence of a “casting process,” carried out in the immediate aftermath of the mass arrests. According to interviews, the long and tedious interrogations were used to find defendants who would further the regime’s agenda. While the authorities were keen on intelligent and eloquent individuals who could be pressured into confessing to taking part in a “velvet revolution,” they made sure to include people representing various opposition groups as well as run-of-the-mill offenders in order to discourage non-political elements from joining the demonstrations. Aside from physical torture, younger defendants were often threatened with long sentences, in the hopes they would confess their “crimes” to avoid the severe negative consequences to their education and employment prospects that a long prison term would cause. In the end, most of the low profile defendants involved in the trial received 1 to 3-year jail sentences as well as probation. Others, however, were sentenced to death and later executed. These events have not only affected the defendants’ lives, but also have reverberated across various segments of Iranian society, with both negative and positive consequences for the post-election movement.
In the first few weeks after the 2009 post-election unrest, many commentators were eager to forecast the downfall of the Islamic Republic. But while the protests did indeed pose a considerable challenge to the regime, the comprehensive crackdown during the past year has indefinitely delayed its predicted demise.
The success of the government crackdown has been due in no small part to the discouraging impact of prisoner experiences on the rest of the population. By increasing the risks associated with political participation and making an example of even the most ordinary protestors, the regime has dared the populace to take to the streets. Most have declined. One need only to look at the low turnout for the June 2010 demonstrations marking the anniversary of the election to realize the efficacy of the government’s strategy of total suppression.
On a more positive note, one could still argue that the availability of new technologies facilitating grassroots communication and organization have changed the landscape of the struggle. Moreover, Iran’s poor international standing and the disastrous impact of sanctions on its already depressed national economy may prove to be the perfect ingredients for a large-scale mobilization of the masses.
This outlook must be mediated, however, by the government’s capability to respond and adapt to the strategies adopted by the opposition. The value of communication technology has not been lost on the security apparatus of the regime, which has not only used it to its own advantage but has also been relentless in its efforts to curb cyber-dissent. The government has also addressed the fractious structure of the security apparatus by taking steps to ensure better coordination between security forces.
If anything, events of the past year have shown that the current regime is prepared to do its utmost to remain in power. Its extensive show of force has certainly been effective in the short term and will continue to have a significant impact on the potential for mass rebellion in the near future. Yet the regime knows full well that in the long run military might alone will likely be insufficient to maintain its rule and preserve its waning legitimacy. Addressing and defusing widespread discontent will be critical to maintaining order and the government has already made some attempts at reconciliation, such as the recent pardon of 81 detainees. While the effect of such gestures remains to be seen, the experiences of a new generation of political prisoners will continue to spread the seeds of dissent and gnaw at the moral foundations of the Islamic Republic. Whether secular or religious, these young men and women have never been more united in their opposition to the status quo.
*Ali Ahmadi Motlagh is editor of Muftah’s Iran page