As Iranian students call for demonstrations on Sunday as a sign of solidarity with jailed student leader Majid Tavakoli, the blogosphere is buzzing over another imprisoned figure who has written an incendiary letter exposing the sordid details of sexual assaults against political prisoners and others.
Journalist Mehdi Mahmoudian, serving a five-year prison sentence in Rejaie Shahr prison, wrote a September 2010 letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The letter has just been published on Kaleme, a website close to Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man who challenged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the last elections.
Mahmoudian, a member of the Society for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights, which advocates “democratic interpretations of Islam,” says it is his religious duty to alert Khamenei’s attention to the abuses taking place in prison. Most shockingly, he writes in great detail about men being raped in the prison.
“Throughout the different quarters of Rajaei Shahr prison, sodomy has become a commonplace routine occurrence. And it seems that to lessen the dangers of contamination, prison guards provide health products to inmates.”
Mahmoudian does not use the word condoms, but that is the implication when he discusses “health products.” His letter goes on to say “anyone with a little beauty of the face, but who lacks physical strength in his arms or money in his account to pay extortionists, will be paraded in different rooms, and each quarter has a boss who will make money from this, and after a while can sell him to another.”
According to the account of one political prisoner, a young man was raped seven times during a single night. “In the morning, when he complained about this to the guards, he was transferred to solitary.” Mahmoudian claims prison guards effectively use inmates as “rent boys,” selling them off for as much as $250.
“I don’t know what will become of me once this letter is published,” Mahmoudian also wrote.
He has since been transferred to solitary confinement, his mother, Fatemeh Alvandi, told BBC Persian. She says also that he is being denied visitors, and his father was turned away from jail on Thursday after waiting hours to see his son.
Alvandi sent an open letter herself to the website Rah Sabz, or the Green Way, addressed to the heads of the judiciary and security services. In it, she says that because of the way they have treated this “illiterate old woman” and her son, she understands that “you (the judiciary and security services) believe in nothing. Not God, not religion nor the Prophet, and all you do is try to fool the people and save your own rule.”
Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, tells Fox News that he understands sexual assault takes place in Iranian jails. “We know rape was used as a form of punishment against post-election protestors on a wide scale, and within prisons today, rape appears to be common, encouraged by prison guards as a way to punish targeted prisoners.”
Even cleric Mehdi Karroubi, former speaker of the Iranian parliament and another participant in the 2009 elections, has written about the sexual assault of young men in prisons. He says the assaults leave the men demoralized, with “physical and psychological problems, and unable to even leave their homes.” He also says reports of such abuses have been revealed to him by people in “sensitive positions.”
Rejaie Shahr prison was once notoriously known as a holding pen for hardened criminals and drug users. Today it's home to prisoners of conscience, such as Mahmoudian and Ahmad Zeidabadi.
Fox News met Zeidabadi in 2005. Zeidabadi is known by Iranians as the “honor of the pen” and came across as a warm and humble man, and patient though somewhat nervous. It was surprising that he was willing to be interviewed by an American journalist because he already had his run-ins with Iranian authorities.
A religious man, Zeidabadi has always advocated democracy in his country. But his insistence on referring to the supreme leader simply as "Mr. Khamenei” as opposed to a divine supreme leader got him into trouble. Zeidabadi was awarded the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2011 for his reporting.
Zeidabadi was sentenced to six years imprisonment, after which he is to be exiled for five years to the desert town of Gonabad. The most unusual and unprecedented aspect of his sentence is a “lifetime ban from political and social life.”
Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in the London bureau. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @kellogglondon