Hamzeh Sawari, an Ahwazi Arab political prisoner detained in the Iranian regime’s Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj, has written a message that was smuggled out of the prison, which has reached human rights organisations. In his letter, Sawari wrote about the horrific conditions in the country’s prisons.
Shedding some light on his experience in prison, Sawari explained that one of the main reasons why prisoners’ conditions have failed to improve is the lack of any monitoring by the regime, which negates its duty of care, along with deliberate denial of healthcare, inhumane treatment, illegal practices, including torture, and violence against prisoners, amid an immunity to accountability for regime officials who know they are more likely to be promoted than punished for engaging in brutal abuse, torture and denying prisoners their most fundamental rights.
The prisoner— serving a life sentence for dissent—wrote in part of his message: “Over the past sixteen years behind bars, I have spent nine months in solitary confinement at the cells of the intelligence headquarters in Shiraz and Ahwaz. I have spent three months in Sheiban Prison. I have spent the past seven years in Rajai Prison in Karaj. I have also served eight years of the sentence in Karun prison in Ahwaz.
“In fact, the eight years I served in Karun Prison were the most difficult. I chose to voluntarily move to Rajai Prison—becoming further away from my family—due to the lack of any human rights for the Ahwazi prisoner who is doubly oppressed away from the media, human rights organisations and the entire world. So I asked officials in this prison – that resembles a haunted garrison – to move me to a jail outside Ahwaz for me to taste some respect or have my most basic demands met, such as receiving medical treatment, not being searched, interrogated, insulted or beaten unjustifiably by the prison’s officials.
“At Karun Prison, I suffered the most brutal physical torture, humiliation and abuse. I was locked up in medieval cells. I have seen several people who share this gruesome fate with me. And I have seen people who had an even more bitter fate — who didn’t survive the torture.
“For those poor prisoners who died under torture, no one has asked how and why they were killed. The ‘crimes’ for which they were tried were all fabricated. Their deaths were attributed to supposed ‘drug overdoses’ — with their cases closed forever.
“After the leak of video footage from Evin prison, a small glimpse into the miserable circumstances in Iranian prisons and the inhumane and illegal treatment of those prisoners by the prison officers was exposed.
“Many political prisoners have mentioned this issue in reports from inside prisons. But the authorities have consistently denied any wrongdoing. In some cases, dual cases are opened against those prisoners [in addition to the original charges against them] — on accusations of defamation and spreading lies against the prison officials. Some prisoners were handed new penalties in those cases.
“But many believe that if this is the situation at Evin Prison—since it is the pioneer among the Iranian prisons in terms of prisoner welfare, given this level of supervision and care in the capital—one can only guess at the tragedies happening in other prisons—especially in cities.
“Based on my experience being locked up in one of those prisons in Ahwaz — in Karun prison — I can confirm that the aforementioned guess is right, and it’s in no way an exaggeration.
“Throughout the decades of the tenure of Karun Prison in Ahwaz — a prison recently closed, joining the history of day-to-day tragedies in Iran — many voices were silenced forever. Many were tortured, humiliated and harassed beyond their already tough penalty. Torture’s harmful stamp not only outlives prisoners but also impacts the lives of their grandchildren for years—like a ghost possessing the victims and haunting them on a daily basis.
“One of those victims was Mohammad Sawari—son of Mahdi. He was a sick prisoner. Instead of receiving treatment, he was literally crucified on the prison fence —with his hands cuffed to it. He was punished under the roasting sun of Ahwaz for long hours. Finally, he died there — standing. After a few days, he was forgotten — as if he had never been there.
“The only benefit of his death was that after it, the jailers no longer crucified prisoners while standing against the fence in the prison’s yard. Instead, they created a new method of torture—tying the hands of prisoners to an iron seat. I have experienced both methods. But Mohammad Sawari—the poor Ahwazi Arab prisoner—died from illness due to his poor physical capabilities. Yet, as is the case with the other prisoners, nobody has been condemned or held accountable for what happened. It’s that simple.
“The tragedy of Karun Prison evolved into multiple other bitter, deplorable and horrific stories. Unfortunately, one article—or even numerous articles– cannot provide room for telling all of them. Therefore, even this piece I am writing cannot provide for an introduction about what I am watching and suffering along with the other Ahwazi prisoners in Karun prison.
“It’s rare to find a prisoner who didn’t sarcastically carve the words of the founder of the Islamic Republic — who once said ‘We should turn the prison into a university’ — on the wall of his cell. In reality, however, circumstances in these prisons have become very harsh. They suffer from extreme living conditions, overcrowdedness, a severe lack of health and medical facilities, inhuman and immoral treatment, unprofessional prison guards—becoming a place for breeding criminals then letting them loose within society.
“Multiple underage children and minors who enter the jail for the first time aren’t professional criminals. But abject poverty, accidental faults, depriving of education, family disintegration, and not having a healthy familial or social environment— for which the government bears responsibility for not taking care of them — lead them to this destiny. As a result, they commit crimes and end up in jail, although there are healthier methods for punishing them other than prison.
“In jail, the impetuous adolescent minor—who is in the stage of receiving education and who could have shown regret for his acts—becomes a professional criminal. The process of breaching the rights of this segment of prisoners begins as soon as they step into the prison. When they enter the dungeon, beatings, verbal and physical abuse and humiliation start, they are stripped of their clothes forcibly — degrading their dignity and character.
“In fact, as soon as they’re admitted to prison, the prisoner usher in a bitter struggle for survival. In order to live in an inhuman prison, they bury their human feelings to adapt to the tough nature of the jail. Hence, affections and emotions like love, sympathy, mercy and peace are replaced with rage, resentment, hate and endless fear.
“After years of languishing behind bars, many people—despite appearing normal and having normal attitudes—need years to get back to normal. Despite all the mistreatment and humiliation they endure, they retain some sense of humanity, morality and decency. While in prison, they always engage in brawls and tense verbal exchanges—hurling barrages of verbal insults and obscene remarks at each other. They get beaten by correctional officers—who mercilessly use batons. Finally, they end up in dirty solitary confinement cells—leading this little window of humanity, morality and decency to close.
“Most people are normal when they enter the jail for the first time. But when the sentence they serve ends, and it’s time to be set free, they turn into sick and tainted human beings. While in prison, they learn the ways to commit crimes. So it’s justified that most of them return to jail less than a year after their release. It’s a vicious cycle. They cannot find their way outside prison, so they end up in it. And when they get out of it, they cannot find their way either — returning to it again.
“Inflicting revenge, humiliation, and other cruel forms of punishment has never been the way to correct and rehabilitate prisoners’ behaviour in any part of the world.
“The humiliating punishments include exhibiting detainees on the streets, beating and humiliating them, carrying out executions in public or behind closed doors, torture and solitary confinement, and sometimes daily broadcast of footage showing detainees on television. But, on the contrary [ to what these cruel punishments are intended to achieve], harsh treatment has never proven to be a remedy to discourage the prisoners from pursuing their criminal acts when they cannot find their way in society.
“Violent, cruel, and vindictive treatment of prisoners will not only cause society to endure massive material and spiritual costs but will also be costly for the regime itself. Meanwhile, humanising the environment of detention centres and prisons would lead to saving financial resources, as well as making society more secure. For example, there is a report published by a local newspaper during the COVID-19 outbreak entitled, ‘The most humane prisons in the world’, which shed light on the situation of prisoners in Norway. The slogan of the Norway officials was: ‘We took the freedom of these prisoners from them. But we have no right to take their lives from them.’
“The outstanding facilities and very humane conditions of these prisoners and the humane treatment by the correctional officers, who were very few in number compared to the prisoners, has led to a very low percentage of prisoners returning to prison after their release. This was something that many of the governors of the US states also thought about. They visited Norwegian prisons to tour them and learn from them. After their observations, they admitted that although the cost of a prisoner in the United States is a quarter of their counterparts in Norway, in the long run, due to the return of more than half of those released persons to prison in less than two years, the costs in the United States is double that of Norway. When it comes to Norwegian society, meanwhile, it is becoming more secure and free of crime and violence over time.
“Finally, the situation of prisoners in Iran has not changed for decades. Perhaps the most important reasons for this could be the lack of supervision, irresponsibility, and continued denial of prisoners’ humane and legal treatment. If this denial continues, it is unlikely that we will soon see a positive shift in the situation of prisoners in Iran in the near future.
The only worthwhile thing that could happen is that the infamous Karun Prison will be closed without a single case being opened to address and investigate those officials and personnel for their large-scale abuses of the Ahwazi prisoners and holding them accountable. Instead, however, the same staff with the same mindset are transferred with the same Ahwazi prisoners to another notorious prison called Sheiban in Ahwaz, and another sad fate is repeated for Sheiban prisoners, and the cries of the mothers of the prisoners, such as the mother of the Ahwazi political prisoner Seyyed Jaber Alboshoka, resonates outside the prison, but her screams do not reach anywhere. They are not heard by the authorities, which is why two years after the outbreak of Covid 19, Seyyed Jaber Alboshoka, after enduring torture and months of solitary confinement simply to protest the lack of care by prison officials, is still far from his detained younger brother Seyyed Mokhtar Alboshoka who himself is being held in a non-political ward in prison.”
It should be noted, that Seyyed Jaber Alboshoka and his younger brother Seyyed Mokhtar Alboshoka were cultural activists and members of Al-Hiwar Cultural Institute in Khalafia city in Ahwaz. These two brothers, along with the institute’s co-founders such as Mohammad Ali Amouri, Rahman Asakereh(high school chemistry teacher), Hashem Shabani (Arabic teacher at high school), Hadi Rashedi (another chemistry teacher), were arrested for their cultural activities in promoting the Arabic language and celebrating the Arab culture and identity of Ahwazi people by organising festivals.
Among the institute’s other activities which the Iranian regime found intolerable were poetry evenings and donating books to poor and disadvantaged students; in retaliation for these ‘crimes’, the institute’s co-founders were charged with ‘threatening national security, ‘spreading corruption on earth’, and ‘enmity to God’. As a result, Hashem Shabani and Hadi Rashedi were executed in 2013. However, like other Ahwazi political prisoners who met the same grim fate, their bodies have never been returned to their families, nor have their families been told where they’re buried.
Mohammad Ali Amouri, meanwhile, was sentenced to life imprisonment after his sentence was commuted from execution. Jaber and his brother Mokhtar were also informed verbally without receiving any official letter from the court that their execution verdict had been commuted to life in prison. Rahman Asakereh was also sentenced to 20 years in prison and now serving his sentence in exile from Ahwaz and his family in another region of Iran.
As for Hamzeh Sawari whose letter, above, was smuggled out of prison, he was 16 years old when he was arrested on 02 September 2005 along with his elder brother Mohammad Ali who was an English teacher. Mohammad Ali Sawari was executed along with his and Hamzeh’s other brother, Jafar Sawari, on 11 September 2007, in Ahwaz City, while Hamzeh was handed a life sentence. The ‘crime’ of all the brothers was to be involved in Ahwazi activism.
Earlier this week, on Wednesday (15 September), Amnesty International published a report listing 72 cases of prisoners in Iran who died as a result of torture or other ill-treatment or by the lethal use of firearms and tear gas by officials.
While only 13 of the cases listed in the Amnesty report involved Ahwazi Arab prisoners, Ahwazi rights groups have pointed out that the actual number of Ahwazi prisoners who were killed in custody is far higher than the few included on this list.
By Rahim Hamid
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.