TEHERAN -”Why is it that in our country political prisoners go to jail vertically but return horizontally?” asked Iranian MP Ahmad Bakhshayesh as he addressed the parliament, criticising the judicial officials for their handling of a blogger’s death in custody.
Sattar Beheshti was a 35-year-old worker from a relatively lower-class family in the city of Robat-Karim who simply dabbled in blogging, finding it a useful (if not the only) platform available in Iran to speak out about the human rights violations committed by the rulers of his country.
Iran’s cyber-police force, which is assigned to track down online crimes (and dissidents), initially resorted to issuing threats to make him reconsider his online activities. When it failed to silence Beheshti, it sent some of its members to pick him up from his home on accusations that he was acting against the national security on Facebook.
One week later his familyreceived a phone-call advising it to collect his dead body. “He went with them safe and sound standing on his own legs; we were then asked to buy a grave for his body,” Beheshti’s sister told an Iranian journalist as she sobbed recounting the ordeal her family had gone through since the news of her brother’s death came to light.
His family members, including his elderly mother who is pictured alongside him in one of the only images of Behehsti online, were refused permission to attend his funeral ceremony, except for one relative, and are now closely monitored in fear they might speak to the media.
What exactly happened after Beheshti’s arrest is not clear, but at some point in that week he was transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and taken to interrogation sessions. What is clear is that while he was in jail he had no access to his family or a lawyer. It emerged later that in Evin he had officially complained about mistreatment and torture, according to a copy of the letter he wrote to officials, which has been published on the opposition website Kaleme.
Before his arrest, Beheshti had also complained in his last blogpost that he had been threatened with death. “They threatened me yesterday that my mother would wear black because I don’t shut my mouth,” he wrote. “They said they will shut me up in a way that no name or sign would remain of me.”
Despite Bakhshayesh’s objection over Beheshti’s death, it is not customary for Iranian parliamentarians to hold the country’s prison officials to account over the treatment of political prisoners, as previous deaths in jail have shown. But thanks to online fury among Iranians, the authorities have at least acknowledged Beheshti’s death as they scramble to promise for a full investigation and at the same time engage in a blame game.
Beheshti is not the first person to die in an Iranian prison. At least 18 people have died in custody in the past 10 years, including the Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi, student activist Amir Javadifar and more recently journalist Hoda Saber. In some of the past cases, the officials have even refused to acknowledge the deaths. This time, however, Beheshti’s case has forced Iran’s rulers to engage in an unprecedented public debate about deaths in custody. Beheshti’s case also shows that Iranian dissident bloggers do not only belong to upper-class families.
Other factors also contributed to the unprecedented publicity over Beheshti’s death, in particular an internal rivalry between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his opponents in the judiciary and the parliament. Last month, the judicial authorities embarrassed Ahmadinejad after publicly saying that he was not allowed to inspect Evin prison, where his media adviser is currently behind bars.
After Beheshti’s death, conservative bloggers close to Ahmadinejad, who would normally remain silent over the mistreatment of political prisoners, reprimanded the judiciary by saying the blogger’s case vindicated the president over his request to visit Evin prison.
The head of Iran’s judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, attacked those bloggers and described their criticism as “hideous”. Larijani has promised for a full investigation into Beheshti’s death and has signalled that the possibility of him dying under torture would also be considered.
This week, Iran is reported to have arrested a number of people said to be involved in Beheshti’s case. Despite the acknowledgement of his death, various Iranian politicians have expressed different and contradictory remarks about Beheshti’s case, including one MP who insinuated (to the outrage of Iran’s online community) that he might have been killed by his fellow prisoners. Iran’s police, however, have expressed regrets over his death and the state prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, said wounds were found on his body.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a non-government organisation based in the US, has quoted an anonymous source who had spoken to someone who saw Beheshti’s body. “He told me that there was a large dent on his head and that they had put plaster over his head,” the source said. “His face was swollen. As soon as they untied his shroud, blood splattered on the shroud from the side of his right knee. As soon as they untied his shroud it became completely bloody, and there were signs of an autopsy on his body as well.”
Beheshti’s death has highlighted the situation under which political prisoners are kept in Iran, especially in Evin where dozens of other bloggers and journalists are behind bars.
Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki, a 25-year-old blogger from the western city of Tabriz, is one of them. Ronaghi-Maleki was imprisoned in the aftermath of Iran’s 2009 disputed presidential elections and is serving a 15-year prison term because of the posts he published on his blog at the time of the elections.
Amnesty International, which described his trial as unfair, has repeatedly warned about his deteriorating health in prison because of a kidney disease.
Extracted from The Guardian