Iran: Judiciary Orders Ban on Torture, But Why Now, And Will It Have Any Effect?
By Golnaz Esfandiari
Iran's conservative judiciary has banned the use of torture. The timing of the announcement is not clear, but many observers are calling it a tacit acknowledgement that torture is used in the Islamic Republic.
Prague, 29 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Kianoosh Sanjari is an Iranian student activist who has been arrested and incarcerated several times in the last several years. Sanjari told RFE/RL he was subjected to psychological torture while incarcerated.
"For a youngster like me who was arrested at the age of 17 and put into prison, solitary confinement for several months was probably the worst psychological torture, and many [who were subjected to the same treatment] wished to die," he said.
Iranian authorities have always denied the maltreatment of prisoners and the use of torture. Human rights organizations say torture is prevalent in the country's prisons.
In its latest report on Iran, Amnesty International said, "torture and ill-treatment, including of prisoners of conscience, continued to be used, usually in cases where judicial or security officials denied detainees access to lawyers and relatives." Human Rights Watch said the "routine lack of respect for basic due process, as well as the frequent use of solitary confinement and prolonged interrogations, heighten the risk of torture and ill-treatment in detention."
Sanjari said many of those arrested during the 1999 student unrest were beaten. "I was a witness to the beatings in jail," he said. "Many of the students who were arrested in the aftermath of the student unrest in 1999 were lashed on their feet. For example, [well-known activist] Ahmad Batebi's head was held in a toilet. Consequently, many of the students are suffering even today from numerous infections."
"Until all jails are under the control of the prison organization, we will not witness the real implementation of the judiciary's directive." -- Sanjari
Yesterday, the head of Iran's hard-line judiciary ordered a ban on the use of torture. In a 15-point directive to police, intelligence, and judicial officials, the head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, said, "Any torture to extract confessions is banned, and the confessions extracted through torture are not legitimate and legal."
The directive says that police should avoid blindfolding, restraining, or harassing detainees. Those accused of crimes also should have access to a lawyer.
Mohammad Hossein Aghassi, a lawyer based in Tehran, told Radio Farda correspondent Siavash Ardalan that the directive is a tacit admission that torture exists in Iran's prisons. "The issuing of this directive indicates that such events happen throughout the country. Before it was said that torture did not exist, the constitution had banned it, and Islamic law is also opposed to it. And now the details we see in the directive are exactly issues that critics have been pointing out. On the other side, [the authorities] have always denied [the allegations about torture]. They closed many of the publications and newspapers because they had said, 'Yes, there is torture [in Iran]," Aghassi said.
The timing of the directive is not clear. Some observers believe Iran's conservative judiciary may be trying to portray itself in a better light following the victory of conservatives in Iran's recent parliamentary polls.
Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi was quoted by Iranian newspapers as saying the directive should be welcomed "if, in the future, it is observed in Iran's judicial system and prisons."
But rights activists in Iran believe there is little hope that the order will actually stop the use of torture. "The existing laws are a better deterrent against the use of torture and maltreatment [of prisoners] than a simple directive. People who commit such acts do so secretly, and prisoners will not be released until such time that the signs of the beatings and harassment fade away. I think the directive serves more a propaganda purpose than a functional one," Aghassi said.
Student activist Sanjari also expresses doubt that the judiciary's directive will be implemented in all of the Islamic Republic's prisons. "[The authorities] have numerous prisons which are not under the control of the prison [authorities]. For example, I was held in solitary confinement for three months in 2001 in the Revolutionary Guard's Prison 59," he said. "Torture was used there, but the officials from the prison organization did not respond [about my whereabouts] to my family. Until all jails are under the control of the prison organization, we will not witness the real implementation of the judiciary's directive."
Currently, some 20 political prisoners are believed to be in detention in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Human rights activists say a number of government critics and dissidents are also being held in other cities.
Earlier this week, Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami for the first time publicly acknowledged that some are being held in the Islamic Republic for their beliefs.
Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org