This is the book the Iranian authorities have been dreading you might one day read and have taken drastic measures to ensure that you don't. It is a story of such horrific brutality that anyone who was sceptical about claims that Iran is part of the 'axis of evil' will have that scepticism dispelled by the time they finish reading it. A real insight into the sickening torture jails of Iran and the gut-wrenching horror of the treatment dished out to political prisoners who oppose the regime, this does not make easy reading. Dr. Reza Ghaffari was a professor at the University of Tehran until his arrest in the spring of 1981, under suspicion of being a member of a banned socialist group. This is his story from the time of his arrest to his eventual escape a decade later. It recounts his experiences through ten years of torture and as a witness to, and near victim of, prison massacres. But the book is not merely a catalogue of atrocities. It is also one of triumph for integrity and the human spirit in the face of the utmost degradation. And there is comedy, as prisoners take firm hold of their sanity, entertain one another and come to terms with the absurd aspects of their predicament. Nothing like this book has ever been written. Nothing - in English or in Persian - has so comprehensively, so movingly or so colourfully portrayed prison conditions and the strength of those suffering them. It is horrific, enlightening and profound.The fatwa imposed by the then Supreme Leader of Iran against author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses scared many publishers into refusing to print this book in English. In 1999 the Iranian authorities came looking for Dr. Ghaffari in London and he was moved to a 'safe house' by MI6 where he stayed for close to a year. After the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York the terrorist threat level in the UK was raised and Dr. Ghaffari was allowed back to his family with greater surveillance on his house. The years of torture have taken their toll on Dr. Ghaffari's health but he has refused to be cowed down and is as determined as ever that his story should be told.
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A State of Fear
My 10 Years Inside Iran's Torture Jails
By Reza Ghaffari
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Dr Reza Ghaffari
All rights reserved.
When Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
'Don't move! Keep your hands in view'.
I opened my bleary eyes to find a circle of ten bearded faces surrounding my bed, scowling down at me. Just below each beard hovered the muzzle of a gun.
One, whose facial hair was flecked with grey, shouted at my startled wife. 'Don't just lie there, sister – cover yourself, put on your chador!' before throwing her from the room. In hindsight it was a ridiculous thing to say, like bursting in on someone in the toilet and reprimanding them for urinating in front of them. At the time, of course, it was terrifying. My wife returned with my pyjamas, as I was naked, before being bundled out once more.
They cuffed my hands tightly behind my back and blindfolded me with a piece of white cloth snatched from the floor. While this was being done, the others ransacked the room.
'Where have you put the gun?' one of them screamed.
I could hear a second group wreaking havoc throughout the rest of the house. Our possessions were thrown into plastic sacks – books, tapes, the music centre, anything that would fit. It was as if these men were burglars, desperate to make a swift exit. But I already knew I couldn't call the police; the Hezbollahi were the police.
My family huddled together in the hallway: my wife, two daughters aged 10 and 12, my four-year-old son and their nanny, the elderly Khaleh Ghezi (who we called 'Aunty'). They were terrified, shivering and crying. They watched helplessly as, all around them, their home was ripped to pieces. Then, as I was still trying to put on my pyjamas, I was pulled to my feet and led away.
'Sister, we're taking him for routine questioning,' the older Hezbollahi told my wife. 'You'll have him back in a couple of hours.'
Hands grasped my upper arms, roughly pulling me onwards. Still blindfolded, I was moving too fast to safely feel my way, and I stumbled down the stairs to the front door.
Thrust outside onto the street, I briefly felt the gentle warmth of Tehran's spring sun on the back of my neck. I was led across the pavement and was bundled into the back seat of a car. A hand grabbed the back of my head and pushed it down – perhaps so I wouldn't try to see from under the blindfold or, more likely, to prevent anybody from noticing me. We pulled out. To where, I did not know. I could feel the coldness of a gun barrel against the back of my head.
I soon registered that another man was hunched beside me. Through a small space at the top of the cloth tied over my eyes I could see that he, too, was blindfolded. He seemed wholly subdued, a condition I would later recognise as a result of torture. He very deliberately hit his leg against mine. I didn't respond, but he nudged me again, this time with his elbow. This seemed strange. Who was this man? Was he the reason these thugs had come to my house? I was still in shock, my guard was up and I was too horrified to consider trusting anybody. I did not respond.
It was early and the streets were empty and silent. We were driving very fast and every time we turned I was thrown from side to side. Each minute felt like an hour but, finally, we came to an abrupt stop. The driver beeped the horn, and I heard the screeching of iron on iron. A heavy gate was opening. Sure enough, when the screeching stopped, we drove on.
Minutes later we stopped again. The door opened, rough hands grabbed my arms and I was hauled out of the car. Then, flanked by two guards, I was frogmarched to a nearby building and led to a room on the ground floor. As soon as we were inside my handcuffs were removed, although the blindfold remained. I was asked my name and the name of my father, my occupation, address and date of birth.
I was instructed to undress and I removed my pyjamas. A guard approached and checked inside the waistband of my underpants to see if I had anything concealed there. I was handed some clothes and a pair of black plastic slippers and ordered to put them on. They didn't even slightly fit me.
Finally the makeshift blindfold was removed and, blinking into the light, I nervously surveyed my captors and surroundings. A battered wooden desk stood in the right corner of the room, behind which was a stocky man in his thirties with a heavy black beard that covered his entire face apart from his nose and eyes. Above him hung a huge poster, almost two metres high, of the very familiar face of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Three or four young men, all sporting beards, stood along one side of the room. They were cradling Uzis and Kalashnikovs, and wearing pistols at their sides. On the other side there was a pile of worn plastic slippers, another of worn-out uniforms and a smaller one of what must have been blindfolds. I looked down to see that I was wearing a threadbare prison uniform with faded vertical stripes.
All this I glimpsed in a second. I didn't get any chance to see more as my eyes and nose were covered by a standard issue black prison blindfold, stiff with sweat, dirt and dried blood. It smelt of faeces.
'How long have you been a counter-revolutionary?'
I hesitantly replied, 'Brother, there must be some mistake. I have never been a counter-revolutionary. I have always supported the revolution.'
'The revolution that overthrew the Shah.'
'When did you become a counter-revolutionary American leftist?'
'I have always despised intervention by any foreign power, especially American intervention in the internal affairs of my country.'
'Which counter-revolutionary group do you belong to?'
'None whatsoever,' I said.
A grunt signalled that the interview was over. Hands seized me, pulling me through the door leading to the bowels of the jail.
Welcome to hell.CHAPTER 2
The narrow gate to hell
I could hear a terrible sound. As I stepped into the open prison yard, I realised what it was: the sound of torture. Once you hear those screams they stay with you forever. They penetrated the walls and echoed down the corridors and inside my skull. I can still hear those echoes today. I particularly remember the sickening sound of a woman screaming out for help. These hellish sounds grew louder and more piercing as we ventured inside.
I was hurried along a long corridor. As we came to some steps I stumbled and fell to my knees, almost smashing my head on the ground. A guard grabbed my sleeve and pulled me back on my feet. I already knew why he had grabbed my sleeve rather than my arm: I was considered 'untouchable' by my devout captors. Further inside the prison I hit my forehead against what must have been a low ceiling. It made a sickening, dull thud and I collapsed for a second time.
This corridor was the narrow gate to hell. Every 'untouchable' would have walked along it. Every prisoner would have fallen on that step and hit their head on that ceiling. This journey was a blunt and somehow fitting introduction to a world of psychological disorientation. We came to a room and I was pushed down into a chair. I could just make out a simple desk standing in front of me. I heard men filing in.
'We've captured all of you bastards now,' someone said. 'You can die together.'
'Brother Rahman, hand him to me,' another of them shouted. 'I'll send him straight to hell.'
They began incessantly cursing me and members of my family. It almost sounded like an incantation, a ritual they repeated for every new prisoner. I tried to convince myself that these taunts were the punishment, but inside I knew that they were just psyching themselves up before they began. Eventually, it started.
'Tell me, which organisation do you belong to?'
'Brother, there has been a mistake. I'm not a member of any organisation.' I was in fact a member of an underground workers' organisation called Rahe Kargar, which literally means 'Workers' Way'. Trades unions were banned, so secret cells of Rahe Kargar sprang up around the country.
He struck the back of my neck with the edge of his hand. It was followed by a wild flurry of punches to my head and face.
I was taken to an adjoining room. Still reeling from this initial beating, I was pushed into a corner. I was so close to the walls that I could feel the concrete against my nose. With my eyes still covered, I was now seriously disorientated. I tried to keep calm and not think about what was going to happen next. It emerged that I did not have to wait long to find out.
Something struck from behind – not a fist, it was far too powerful for that – and my face and chest smashed against the walls in the corner where I stood. Badly winded and unable to breathe, I collapsed to my knees. I desperately fought for air but, like a fish on a slate, I was helpless. It was agony, like sharp bolts of electricity were being passed through my body. Someone tried to pull me to my feet but my legs wouldn't support me.
Once my system allowed me to swallow air again I saw, through the small slit above my blindfold, what had hit me. It was swinging from the ceiling and looked a bit like a punch bag, but bigger and filled with gravel. It was about a half a metre in diameter and a metre in length. When it slammed into you it felt like a train. While I was still on my knees, a heavy boot of one of the Hezbollahi delivered a swift kick to my head, then another to my back. The man grabbed my hand, pulled me up, and I was dragged, staggering and breathless, to another room.
From beneath my blindfold I saw the feet of my torturers. From what I could make out there were at least four men in the room with me. I also saw an iron bed frame, covered with what would have been a mattress if it wasn't made of wood. They forced me onto it, face down.
One interrogator sat on my back, firmly placed a hand on the back of my head and forced my face into the wooden board. Two others strapped my ankles to the crosspiece of the frame and my wrists to the top. My arms were stretched out straight. Then they began their 'holy duty', lashing the soles of my feet with a length of thick, insulated cable. The pain was indescribable. It tore through every inch of me. I screamed like never before, all the while anger growing inside me. The guard on my back only pushed down harder, grinding my face into the wood. As the flogging intensified, so did my screams. One of the men pushed torn pieces of blanket covered with dirt, blood, dust and hair into my mouth to gag me.
Throughout the ordeal the interrogator demanded names, times, places and houses of my 'comrades'. He was fixated on the times and places of alleged secret meetings. I couldn't have answered even if I had wanted to; with my mouth stuffed with rags it was difficult to breathe, let alone speak. The pain from the lashing was almost obscured by the feeling of blind panic that I was going to choke to death. Focusing what little energy I had, I was able to dislodge the rags in my mouth. They were trying to break me mentally as well as physically, claiming they knew the time and place of a certain meeting and demanded that I confirm it. I knew they were bluffing. What they really expected from me was detailed information leading to the capture and arrest of my comrades. Mercifully, I passed out.
My body was covered with a cold sweat. It felt like I had been soaked in icy water. From under the blindfold I could see a narrow beam of light shining through a hole in the door of the torture room. The rags had been removed from my mouth. The chief interrogator told me that Haji Aghah – a priest and representative of the Ayatollah Khomeini in the prisons – gave him written permission to torture me to death.
'Now, what are you going to do? Do you talk, or should I ask our brothers to make you talk? We have forced central committee members to talk. Do you want to be a hero? You're a fool. No hero will emerge from this cell alive. Do you know where we'll take your corpse? To a cursed hole where dogs will tear you apart.'
'Brother,' I said, sobbing, 'I swear by Imam Khomeini that you have made a mistake, I know nothing about these names and addresses.'
The chief interrogator and two others took the straps off and sat me up on the bed, still blindfolded, so that I was facing the door. I heard more people entering the room and four more boots appeared on the ground, along with someone wearing plastic prison slippers. I assumed he was another prisoner, but had no idea who he was. The chief interrogator spoke again. 'Farhad, take off your blindfold and tell us who this man sitting on the bed is.'
With some hesitation, the prisoner said, 'He is Karveh, a lecturer at the University of Tehran.' Karveh was the secret underground name I was known by for 20 years and more while in the Rahe Kargar movement. He gave a list of names of people supposedly working under me and recited a statement that had obviously been dictated by prison officials: 'My wife and I have both been captured. Our organisation has been attacked at the very top. We have given the brothers all the information that we have. You should do the same, otherwise you and your family will be destroyed.'
Farhad. I knew that name well. And that voice was familiar, too ... it was that of a cadre in Rahe Kargar. It took me a second to place him as he sounded different, broken and desolate. It was a tone that I had never heard before, although I now understood the reason for it. I was aware that anyone I said I knew would share my fate. A name would mean a death. I would be helping to destroy the struggle of which I was a part; the struggle for workers' rights. Workers had no right of association, unions or bargaining power and it's the same now. Rahe Kargar was helping to organise secret cells inside factories to fight for these rights. There was only one way to respond.
'Why are you lying?' I said, furiously. 'Who are these people you are talking about? Why are you accusing me of having contact with them? Have you ever introduced any of them to me? I have never met any of these people.'
'You are lying,' the interrogator snapped. A fist connected squarely with my head. I heard Farhad being taken away. The torture was about to begin again. From under the blindfold, I glimpsed a deep pile of dried scraps of flesh and pools of blood. The macabre remains of those who had been tortured before me, who had died or were imprisoned in this hellhole. I knew that some of these 'untouchables' would have been no more than children: only 12 years old, boys and girls. Some would have been as old as 80. Yet the flesh was not so much revolting as inspiring: a testimony to those who, in the name of justice, had refused to break.
'I must make a decision,' I thought. 'Should I give up all the values of democracy, freedom and justice that I have held for so long? Or should my blood join that of the others who resisted and remained firm in their commitment?' I knew then that I would not jeopardise the lives or activities of my comrades. I would not be helping myself even if I did talk. Anyone brought in because of my confession would only be tortured until they produced more evidence against me. But would my silence protect me? Perhaps. Only if Farhad had not disclosed anything else about me and no other comrades from our organisation – especially those from the Rahe Kargar newspaper – were arrested.
The interrogators worked for Savama, the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security. This was the secret police and they were experienced. Some had been employed in the time of the Shah and when he was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979 they discovered their skills were still much in demand. The one the others called Haji Rahman shouted at me: 'Motherfucker, we caught you red-handed in one big net. We'll hang you all.'
'Give this motherfucker to me,' screamed another. 'I will kill him and send him to hell right now.'
Excerpted from A State of Fear by Reza Ghaffari. Copyright © 2012 Dr Reza Ghaffari. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: WHEN DAWN'S LEFT HAND WAS IN THE SKY ...,
CHAPTER 2: THE NARROW GATE TO HELL,
CHAPTER 3: ROOTS,
CHAPTER 4: REVOLUTIONARY DAYS,
CHAPTER 5: THE HOUSE OF REPENTANCE,
CHAPTER 6: AN ARTIST'S IMPRESSION,
CHAPTER 7: WRITING ON THE WALL,
CHAPTER 8: QUARANTINE,
CHAPTER 9: THE PRISON REGIME IN THE GOLDEN FORTRESS,
CHAPTER 10: DOOMSDAY,
CHAPTER 11: THE RED PRIEST,
CHAPTER 12: THE VIP LOUNGE,
CHAPTER 13: THE END OF THE ROPE,
CHAPTER 14: HOLY GANGSTERS,
CHAPTER 15: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE TAVABS,
CHAPTER 16: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME,
CHAPTER 17: GOHARDASHT,
CHAPTER 18: MASSACRE!,
CHAPTER 19: CAT AND MOUSE,
CHAPTER 20: WOMEN'S STRUGGLE AGAINST THE ISLAMIC REGIME,
CHAPTER 21: THE ISLAMIC COURTS,
CHAPTER 22: ESCAPE,
CHAPTER 23: PRISON HISTORY AND POLITICAL TRENDS,
CHAPTER 24: A CENTURY OF PRISONS,
CHAPTER 25: PARADISE LOST ... OR REGAINED? A LOOK TO THE FUTURE,