Middle East


Student Leader Dies In Prison

An Iranian inmate peers from behind a wall as a guard walks by at the female section of the infamous Evin jail, north of Tehran. (Photo: Atta Kenare / AFP-Getty Images)

In the early hours of July 31, more shocking news came out of Tehran's highly notorious Evin prison. This time it was not about another writer or activist's arrest; it was way beyond that. Akbar Mohammadi, a renowned student activist of the past decade had suspiciously died in his cell.

The news quickly spread to expat Iranian reporters, devastated another family's lives, alarmed the international as well as domestic human rights defenders, but was largely overshadowed in the international press due to the massive news coverage of the Middle East crisis and the U.N. Security Council's 1696 resolution on Iran's nuclear program.

Mohammadi, 36, who had spent almost half a decade of his youth in Evin prison on charges involving activities against the Islamic Republic, is the latest sacrificial victim of the freedom movement in Iran.

The cause of death still remains unclear. Mohammadi was reportedly subject to ill-treatment in the prison, and there are indications that following an inspection of Evin — including Mohammadi's detention conditions — by senior officials and parliamentarians, he was administered a drug which may have resulted not only in tranquillization but possibly his death, because of complications.

However, some eyewitnesses among his fellow inmates denied the use of any drug, though they still raise the question of the prison's indifference to Mohammadi's critical physical condition, which they feel resulted in his death.

The Student Committee of Human Rights Reporters of Iran reported Mohammadi's passing in a statement released hours after his death.

The news was soon confirmed by Sohrab Soleimani, the head of Tehran Province's prison authority. Soleimani told Iran's ISNA student news agency that Mohammadi fell ill while showering with other inmates, then died during his transfer to the prison infirmary. He did not elaborate on the cause of death, instead stating that coroners had not yet reached a conclusion.

Denied Visitation Rights

Mohammadi, who was spending a medical exemption outside prison since 2004, was arrested again on June 11 without any previous notice. Efforts by his lawyers to meet him failed, and he was denied family visitation rights in the prison.

To protest the arrest, Mohammadi reportedly had undertaken a wet hunger strike since July 21, and then went on a dry strike (refusing to take liquids as well as solids) for two or three days prior to his death.

At the time of the hunger strike his already unstable health had become more fragile and according to his lawyer Khalil Bahramian, any effort to arrange a meeting with Mohammadi in order to convince him to break the fast was denied by Evin authorities.

"I had repeatedly warned the judiciary authorities as well as Evin officials about the critical health condition of my defendant. I had told them that I could stop his hunger strike if I were allowed to visit him but they refused to allow me. This is against Iran's domestic laws as well as international conventions," said Bahramian, who indicated that he himself has been receiving threats from Iranian intelligence sources.

Mohammadi was said to be in ill health and suffering from acute abdominal pain. Prison medical staff reportedly advised that he should be removed from prison for medical treatment. According to sources inside Evin he sought medical care around July 26, during his hunger strike. Between July 26 and 29, he was allegedly provided unspecified treatment, though an Iranian parliamentary delegation visiting the prison was denied permission to visit his section, and possibly the clinic itself where he was held.

"Mortazavi (Tehran's chief prosecutor), Abbasi (the Head of Evin prison), and someone else went over to Akbar's bed, they poured a drug into his mouth while he was chained to the bed. Then they took him back to his cell covered in his own blood, threw him on the floor and said 'die like a dog now that you don't break your hunger strike,' said Mohammadi's brother, Reza, sobbing and wailing in mourning.

"He then took his very last breaths after few minutes, as his friends informed us from inside of the prison. Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, Khaled Hardani, and Hojjat bakhtiari (three political inmates) told me so on the phone. They were right there when they killed my brother," continued Reza, who resides in Turkey.

Around July 29 - 30, Mohammadi was reportedly gagged and bound to a bed while senior officials visited the prison. There also are contrary reports suggesting that the Chief Prosecutor for the province of Tehran, Saeed Mortazavi, and two senior prison officials, along with a prison guard reportedly inspected him on July 30, during which time he was administered an unspecified 'medicine.' His condition reportedly worsened in the course of that day and he died on July 31.

"I do not have any solid evidence to confirm the nature of the medication either way, but there are reports that they had taken him to the infirmary so that [the parliamentarians] would not see him and that accordingly they had mouth-taped my client so that those parliamentarians could not even hear him from inside the clinic. This could well be cause of death for someone who suffers from asthma and had such a fragile health condition," said Bahramian, who has agreed to represent Mohammadi's family in the investigation to determine the cause of Akbar's death. He continued, "... verification of this alone makes a big difference which apparently and legally is the difference between natural death and homicide."

A fellow inmate, Bina Darabzand, although rejecting the presence of Mortazavi and allegations about a drug, placed the blame squarely on the authorities:

"I disagree that it was suspicious, because for those of us who were there what they (the prison authorities) did was very obvious. First of all, based on a recommendation made by [medical authorities], Mr. Mohammadi went on an unlimited leave two years ago because he couldn't stay in prison with all his health problems. I remember after he went on hunger strike on Sunday (July 23), that on Thursday (July 27) he felt ill three times. They hospitalized him only after the third time. On Sunday (July 30), when they returned him to the block, he told us during the last hour of his life that on Saturday (July 29) he had a heart attack in the prison infirmary. Our question is, who ordered that he be returned to prison, illegally and over his protest?" asked Darabzand.

"We witnessed his heart attack," he continued, "We think the fact that he had a heart attack and then was returned to the block so that he died there is enough to condemn this establishment. The head of the prison infirmary had warned the prison management that [Mohammadi] experienced syncope, although he survived it. But he had said, 'If we don't react to his conditions, whether we want to or not, we'll face a corpse here. The prison authorities said to return him to his cell and let him die there. The next day, they again told him to stop his hunger strike — there are many witnesses. But he had said, 'I won't stop until you meet my demands.' Then [prison authorities] told him that they would return him to the cell block so that he could rot and die."

Family Denied Access to Body

Mohammadi's parents, who were on a trip to Turkey visiting Reza and Nasrin — two of their other children — at the time of his death, immediately returned to Iran in order to get the body from Evin prison.

They arrived at Tehran's airport on Tuesday, Aug. 1, at 02:30 local time where a crowd of some 700 supporters awaiting their arrival were being held back by the police, and were not even allowed in the waiting hall. Mohammadi's parents were forcibly taken directly from the aircraft to awaiting vehicles and driven to an unknown place, and after few hours to their house in Amol. They were denied permission to see the body of their deceased son, as was his other brother Manuchehr, who has also been held in Evin prison for years on the same charge as his dead brother.

"They took the corpse of my brother with my mom and dad to our hometown Amol accompanied by eight security vehicles. My mom said it to me on cell phone and then the phone was turned off," said Nasrin, Mohammadi's sister, bursting into tears.

Despite the call by Mohammadi's lawyer as well as the family that an independent team of pathologists must examine his body, the corpse was transferred to a coroner on July 31, and then buried under heavy security in a remote village in northern Iran.

"My parents wanted the body to be buried in a shrine inside Amol which is near our home, so that they can visit it often. … But they forcibly transferred it to a village far from Amol and buried it against our will. They did not even let us have a decent funeral," said Reza Mohammadi in a shaking voice. "We want to have the body investigated. We authorize them to exhume the corpse and draw the investigations."

The request for the full autopsy is according to law, as expressed in both the domestic judiciary law of Iran, and in Principle 9 of the U.N. Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, which states: "There shall be thorough, prompt and impartial investigation of all suspected cases of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions, including cases where complaints by relatives or other reliable reports suggest unnatural death in the above circumstances. […] The purpose of the investigation shall be to determine the cause, manner and time of death, the person responsible, and any pattern or practice which may have brought about that death. It shall include an adequate autopsy, collection and analysis of all physical and documentary evidence and statements from witnesses."

Bahramian indicated that he would ask Hashemi Shahroodi, head of Iran's judiciary, to authorize the exhuming and full inspection of the body. "This is all against law," he said, "I have a right to be suspicious about the whole event. The responsible ones in accordance to this death must be brought to justice. I am sure that Iranian authorities would not want to experience a similar case to Zahra Kazemi's. These are the facts that remain in the history."

Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist visiting Iran, was arrested while taking photos of a protest in front of the Evin prison in July 2003. She was subjected to physical violence in detention and died from a brain injury after a few days. She was reportedly tortured and beaten in the head in Evin, though the Iranian court sealed the case after holding no one responsible.

The Iran-Canada relationship has never fully recovered from the aftermath of Kazemi's death. Human right organizations have repeatedly held Mortazavi, Tehran's Chief Prosecutor, responsible for her death, with reports indicating that he had beaten her in the head while attempting to coerce a confession.

Chief Prosecutor an Enemy of the Press

Mortazavi, then chief judge of Iran's press court, is well known to Iranian journalists and human right defenders as the number one adversary of the free press.

During his long run in the anti-press freedom movement in Iran he has been responsible for the closure of more than a hundred reformist publications, and the suppression of activists. His signature exists on the arrest orders of hundreds of journalists, activists and students who have been detained and imprisoned during the now-paralyzed reform movement and afterwards.

In April 2000, Mortazavi, then the judge of Public Court Branch 1410, led a massive crackdown to silence growing dissent in Iran. He ordered the closure of more than 100 newspapers and journals. In 2002, a human rights expert appointed by the old U.N. Commission on Human Rights to monitor the human rights situation in Iran took the extraordinary step of naming Mortazavi publicly in his report and calling for him to be suspended from the bench. In 2003, he was promoted to the post of Tehran's prosecutor general.

In 2004, Mortazavi orchestrated the arbitrary detention of more than 20 Web bloggers and Internet journalists, who were held in secret prisons and were subject to torture and physical violence before being coerced into false televised confessions.

One of the detainees who preferred his name not to be divulged said that Mortazavi personally told him that he possessed a quarter of overall authority in Iran, after threatening to kill the detainee's spouse and children if he refused to comply with the televised confession.

A very strong authority figure in Iran, earlier this year Mortazavi was sent to the first human rights council gathering of the United Nations in Geneva as Iran's representative, an act that was described by human right defenders as the Islamic Republic regime's biggest mockery of the concept of human rights.

Human Rights Watch indicated in a report that the prosecutor general has been implicated in torture, illegal detention, and coercing false confessions by numerous former prisoners, and that he must be instantly removed from Iran's delegation to the U.N.

Many human right defenders and analysts believe that Mortazavi's possible role in Mohammadi's death is far from imaginary. These speculations also indicate that if so, due to the powerful authority that he possesses, reaching a truthful conclusion in Mohammadi's case may prove to be very difficult.

Arrested After Student Demonstrations

Mohammadi was one of the thousands of students arrested in July 1999 after demonstrations which erupted following the closure of newspapers and one of the periodic clampdowns on freedom of expression (notably of the Salam daily) that occurred throughout the late 1990s in Iran.

Mohammadi and some other students (namely Ali Shafei and Ahmad Batebi—who was again returned to Evin Prison on July 29) were sentenced to death in Sept. 1999 following a manifestly unfair trial. He was brutally tortured while being held incommunicado in detention — denied the right of legal representation and access to family. Following domestic and international outcry in Nov. 1999, their sentences were commuted to 15 years imprisonment.

From the day of his arrest, Mohammadi was routinely tortured. While in the custody of the Ministry of Intelligence, he was allegedly suspended by his arms, and violently beaten. Guards beat him to the edge of unconsciousness, telling him that all he had to do was blink to accept the charges against him.

At the end of Nov. 2003, judicial authorities permitted his hospitalization in response to urgent stomach and kidney problems, internal bleeding, and possibly a lung infection. Despite medical advice that he should be hospitalized for one month, Mohammadi was returned to Evin prison one week later.

Between July 2004 and June 2006, Mohammadi resided at his family home in Amol where he received medical treatment and wrote a prison memoir.

Human Rights Organizations Condemn Death

Mohammadi's death has engendered some strong reactions outside of Iran. "The death in custody of Akbar Mohammadi, former student, in the early hours of July 31, 2006 casts a pall over the entire Iranian justice system," Amnesty International said in a report. "The series of failures to afford Akbar Mohammadi justice have robbed him of his life and his family of human dignity. There can be no more deaths in Iranian custody. Thorough reform of the criminal justice system is urgently needed. The Iranian authorities need to take urgent measures to ensure that political prisoners are afforded a fair and open trial; that torture and other ill-treatment in Iranian prisons is halted; and that the practice of delaying or denying medical care is stopped immediately."

Amnesty International also expressed concern that political prisoners Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, Ahmad Batebi, and Mohammadi's brother Manuchehr are facing heightened risk following this latest death in custody.

Human Rights Watch similarly stated in a report that the Iranian government should "immediately allow an independent investigation into the suspicious death in prison of student activist Akbar Mohammadi." The report said that if responsibility for Mohammadi's death in Tehran's Evin prison lies with the prison or other State authorities, the relevant individuals should be identified and prosecuted.

Human Rights Watch called for an independent commission comprised of Iranian lawyers and medical experts to investigate and report publicly on the circumstances surrounding Mohammadi's death. The organization also expressed serious concern for the health and safety of other prisoners held for their political beliefs inside Iran's prisons.

"Iran's judiciary is responsible for Mohammadi's arrest, his torture and now his death in custody," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "Only an independent investigation can establish why he died, and whether he was tortured, beaten or force-fed. Someone must be held accountable for Mohammadi's death."

The Bush administration also lambasted Iran. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "Washington condemns the Iranian government's severe repression of dissidents and its continued crackdown on civil society and those fighting for personal freedom." Without elaborating, he alleged that the Iranian regime's actions had resulted in Mohammadi's death.

On the night of Aug. 1, the last persons who saw Mohammadi alive — his friends and fellow political inmates in Evin — held a commemoration for him inside the prison, according to a report by the Student Committee of Human Rights Reporters of Iran. The end of the report listed 25 names of the most well known imprisoned political students of Iran — a list that until the early hours of July 31 also included the name of Akbar Mohammadi.

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