Evin, the 'black hole' of Iran’s theocracy
The shah's prison is at the heart of the Islamic Republic's worst atrocities. Common criminals, activists, and dissidents have been executed inside the infamous facility. Scores of reports have highlighted serious human rights abuses and violations. In mid-October, a mysterious fire engulfed the prison for hours. Thousands of people arrested for protesting against the death of Mahsa Amini are set to go on trial together.
Milan (AsiaNews) – Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison has become a symbol of how far Iran’s Islamic regime is willing to go to silence those who oppose the dictatorship.
For 50 years, this black hole has swallowed up dissidents, activists, opponents, dual nationals disliked by the regime, or unwary foreign tourists, caught up in repression or used as bargaining chips with foreign powers.
As a place of abuse and torture, Evin is synonymous with violence and terror, where rape is systematic against both women and men, to extract confessions or as an extra tool of personal coercion. Many never come out alive.
In silence, people are hanged or go through a simulation in order to be pressured, with families informed after the fact that their loved ones were executed.
In mid-October, the prison was back in the news after it was engulfed in a devastating fire that the authorities have never fully explained, hitting a country already shaken by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police, who took her into custody for not wearing the hijab properly as she came out of a metro station in Tehran.
The crime sparked outrage, triggering street protests. Since then, the authorities have cracked down hard. Yesterday, they announced that more than a thousand people involved in the protests would be put on trial on subversion charges.
Evin Prison is located in Evin, a suburb of the Iranian capital, Tehran. It was built in 1972 for political prisoners under Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, seven years before the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
A purpose-built wing was nicknamed "Evin University" because of the number of students and intellectuals it held, both before and after the revolution.
Over the years, its administrators have been accused of "serious human rights abuses" against political dissidents and government critics.
For over 40 years, the facility has been the symbol of the authoritarian rule of the Islamic Republic. Unlike what happened in mid-October, any internal incidents or and riots rarely go beyond its walls or become public knowledge.
Based on stories that got through censorship and the accounts of those who came out alive, it seems that the prison is divided into three distinct wings, each with its structures and administration: one for common criminals, one under the intelligence services, and a third for political prisoners, including foreigners.
The latter has become especially overcrowded lately, due to the massive wave of arrests following Amini’s death.
Evin is known precisely for being the place where all political dissidents are locked up. Some of them have been the victims of mass executions, like in 1988, on the orders or at least the endorsement of a commission of which Iran’s current president, Ebrahim Raisi, was also a member.
Before the Islamic Revolution, the prison was notorious for mistreatment and abuse, but things got worse with the rise to power of Iran’s Shia clerics.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have released numerous reports in recent years noting that prisoners have been subjected to whipping, simulated executions, sexual violence, denied medical care, waterboarding, and electric shocks.
Inmates have been denied basic rights such as time outside, food, medical treatment, education, proper lighting, family visits, even access to legal counsel.
Theoretically, the penitentiary was supposed to house detainees awaiting trial before they were moved to other facilities like Ghezel Hesar or Gohardasht prisons.
Eventually, it morphed into a kind of concentration camp where prisoners awaiting trial lived and suffered for years before going before a court.
Currently, it houses 15,000 prisoners, divided into 12 overcrowded wards, while its maximum capacity is 3,000.
The most feared wards are those under the control of the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) and the intelligence services. Here the worst atrocities are reserved for “special" prisoners.
A mysterious fire
In mid-October, a mysterious fire sowed hours of terror with people saying they heard gunshots. The authorities, after an initial period of confusion, imposed strict censorship, blocking communications with the outside.
Officially, eight people died, including four from smoke inhalation, and 61 were injured. The dead were convicted thieves. According to the prison administration, unnamed “thugs” inside the prison set fire to a clothes workshop.
Fighting broke out among some inmates, and between guards and prisoners who chanted “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei”, Iran’s supreme leader.
This version has not gone down well with rights groups and inmates’ relatives, starting with the death toll, which is thought to be much higher.
According to Article18, a London-based advocacy group dedicated to religious freedom in Iran and to persecuted Christians, witnesses say they heard gunshots while footage shows gunfire and explosions inside the prison.
“It was a hellish night for us,” said the relative of an imprisoned Christian. “We were completely in the dark about what was happening. Then, when we were finally able to speak, we heard the sound of shooting and then the phone was disconnected.”
“In the morning, our relative called us to tell us that he was OK,” the source said. “But he also said most of the prisoners in Ward 8 had been helping to put out the fire (in Ward 7) with every tool they could get their hands on – from buckets and containers, to water hoses.”
Steven Beck, an audio forensics expert, and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University separately analysed videos provided by The Washington Post and found that more than 100 distinct gunshots were fired. Both analyses identified automatic gunfire “consistent with an AK-47” as well as sounds likely from handguns and rifles.
Two explosions “consistent with grenades” are also heard, a version confirmed by another weapons expert, Amael Kotlarski, according to whom stun grenades were used inside the prison while one of the fires was intentionally set when the detainees were still in their cells.
The authorities deployed security forces to quell the protest, including Basij units and special police troops using batons, bullets, metal pellets, and explosives.
Many aspects of the Evin Prison fire remain unclear. Independent NGOs have called for an independent investigation to look into the excessive and illegal use of force by security forces.
However, many fear and others are certain that even this case will end up sucked into Evin’s “black hole”.
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