The prisons of Russia, the cemeteries of Iran

In 1994 I visited the St Petersburg Investigative prison with a group of professional colleagues. In order for our cameraman to film undisturbed in the tiny cell with twenty-four boys stacked in three-high bunks inside it (the film was later shown on Channel 4), I kept the principal guard, Valery Vasilievitch, talking in the corridor.

The heat was oppressive, with sweat trickling down our faces. Natasha [our stalwart interpreter] looked pale and exhausted, trying to keep up with the translation. I had been struck, inside the cell, by how he had appeared to know some personal detail about one of the boys, perhaps that he had received a visit or parcel recently. Outside I asked him, “Do you know all the boys’ names?” “Of course!” An extraordinary question. “Do you find,” I continued, “that you become like a father to them while they’re here?” I thought this had been an innocent, confidence-building question. It released a torrent of vehemence from our block of hard-liner wood. A father? Good heavens no. Everything was a routine. His job was to carry out all the routine procedures. There was nothing but routine. No contact at all.A gaffiti in Vali Asr street in Tehran

This explanation went on for a long time.

Then came more: the first word a Russian child hears is No. Physical confinement is the main punishment used with children in this country. They are locked up. It is natural. It produces a very disciplined nation. All children are naturally well behaved. Discipline should be very severe.[1]

Later, as he became impatient, I mollified him by commenting that “Russian prisons were famous throughout the world.”

One tyranny is much like another.[2] Now it is the hysterical tumult of turbans in Iran. The current news is bad enough. Readers will by now be familiar with the exposure of the IRI as a military dictatorship, ruling by force (IRGC or Sepah) in opposition to its own people, whom it tortures, rapes and murders. Equally as impressive as the visibility of the regime’s every move, is its unawareness of that visibility. As often argued here,

The massively orchestrated and naked violence that the Islamic Republic has launched against its own citizens [has] discredited any claim to “Islam” that it may have while bordering on discrediting Islam itself … The Islamic Republic of Iran is self-destructing.

Child's grave, Eshqebad

That’s what they’re saying in Cairo. Meanwhile, we all must contemplate the universal image of the Islamic Republic of Iran ─ the cemetery.

The Iranians do death really well. They have the highest road accident rate in the world: each year 20,000 people die in 250,000 accidents. With China, it boasts the highest number of judicial executions. And in recent weeks, with two plane crashes reported, it has emerged that the country also has one of the worst air passenger safety records in the world, beating off flyweight competitors such as Yemenair.

Photo here from Paolo Woods, of Time Magazine.

Bitter experience

But those a little more familiar with the ups and downs of theocratic rule over thirty years will say, quite rightly, that it was always a police state and the first waves of executions were in 1981, 1985 and 1988. Survivors of those waves are among the most eloquent reporters on life in the prisons and torture cells. A particularly calm, sober and moving set of such interviews may be viewed here.

Spot the waterfall?

The three American holiday hikers through scenic south-eastern Iraq, were initially reported to have ‘strayed’ into Iranian territory, and not to have been helpfully redirected but instead detained by the authorities there. Now there is an altogether different story. The three appear to have been kidnapped from near a scenic waterfall at Ahmed Awa , in Khormal district, inside Iraq.

Farhad Lohoni, the leader of the local tribe, said his relatives had witnessed a group of men cross the border using a road that leads to a base used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Marivan, Iran. He claimed that the local Kurdish security service had records of a call suspected to have been made by an Iranian agent to Iran that is said to have tipped off the IRGC to the Americans’ presence in the scenic area. “This was not a case of the Americans straying into Iran,” he said. “They were targeted and captured by a group that came over from Iran, ignoring Iraq’s sovereignty. We know this and it means that Iran must have wanted to take Americans hostage at this sensitive time.”

Once again, mobile telephone evidence is not the kind that Iran likes. After thirty years in power this regime, the flagship for Jihadist violence everywhere, still exhibits all the instincts of village bandits. Ahmadinejad insists that his government is a major force in world affairs, deserving of all international respect, yet in any tense situation what does he do? Reach for a hostage. This time it is not unarmed British sailors in international waters:

Persian flag at time of Kourush 559 BC

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 30, and Joshua Fattal, 27 … are believed to be in detention in Tehran … Almost three weeks after the group was seized, the Swiss ambassador, who serves as the representative of US interests in Tehran, has still not been granted access by the Iranian authorities. A fourth member of the group said Mr Bauer had been able to use an Iraqi mobile to alert him to their predicament. “I sent Shane two text messages, one at 12:50pm and one at 1:22pm, to which he did not respond,” said Shon Meckfessel, a friend of the group who had been resting at a hotel. “At 1:33pm I received a call from Shane during which he told me that they were being taken into custody and that I should call the embassy.”

In any case, if these three intrepid holidaymakers had wanted to penetrate into Iran, a three-hour hike east from their position, they might never have arrived, since there are uncleared minefields along the way left over from the Iran/Iraq war.

New movement

Mousavi has announced a new movement, to be called The Green Path of Hope. One cannot begin to imagine that such freedom of association will be allowed in the dungeon that Iran has become, where even free-minded journalists are all in jug. There is scope, is there not, for some samizdat-style clandestine distribution of reform literature. At present, all most people seem to be demanding is for there to be some law in Iran.

Ancient dignity

Patriotic Iranians – the majority – who have been led to feel seven hundred varieties of shame by the Ahmadinejad regime, are critical of their present national flag, which they regard as defiled. The flags of Iran down the ages include the original Achaemenid eagle, shown here, and subsequent lions, dropped in 1979 because of their association with the Shah.

Persian flag lion only

There is some preference being expressed for the restoration of pre-Islamic eagles and lions, especially because Iranians now feel that only a return to the dignity of ancient roots could cleanse the national consciousness of the ghastly reign of criminals.

Honour among thieves

A rather shy news intelligence source reports as follows:

Mohammad Reza Baqeri, Deputy [Iranian] Foreign Minister for African Affairs, who is heading a delegation visiting Harare, discussed issues of mutual interest with President Robert Mugabe on Friday evening. In the meeting, the two sides congratulated each other for holding presidential elections in the two countries. Mugabe called presidential election in Iran a ‘big event’ and said that he was following the election process very carefully. The president said, “We are familiar with the west plots and conspiracies and we intend to fight against imperialism.” He considered President Ahmadinejad’s message as a sign of brotherhood between the two countries. Baqeri, for his part, praised President Mugabe’s wisdom which has brought tranquillity to Zimbabwe.

This seems almost too good to be true. I couldn’t let that pass, could I?


[1] These notes were made at the time and subsequently published in Cox, C. (ed) Trajectories of Despair. Misdiagnosis & Maltreatment of Soviet Orphans. Christian Solidarity International, 1991.

[2] Perhaps, pace Tolstoy, each happy family is happy in a different way.

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