Report 20: Witness hearings pt. 1

Gohardasht prison in Iran. One of the prisons where many persons were executed in the summer of 1988. Photo: Gohardasht Prison / Ensie & Matthias (flickr.com) / CC BY-SA 2.0

In our previous report, we provided a summary of the last hearings with the defendant by the defense and plaintiff counsels. In this report, we will provide summaries of hearings with witnesses 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 which were held on 7, 9, 10, 13, 15 and 16 December. The first hearing with a witness took place already on 18 November and a summary of that hearing was presented in Report 16. 

Witness 2

The hearing of Witness 2 was initiated with questioning from the prosecution, which began by asking the witness to recollect his memories of the staff that worked in Gohardasht prison while he was incarcerated there. 

The witness mentioned Sayid Hussein Mortasavi, Davoud Lashkari, Naserian and Hamid Abbasi and further explained that Naserian and Abbasi were managers while the others were “executives”. The witness recalled that he had met the person who the prosecution claims is the defendant a few times in Gohardasht prison. Some of these occasions were in the visiting room, where Abbasi had asked prisoners questions of “political ideological character”. The witness explained that he recognized Abbasi’s voice as “calm and normal while the other [guards’] tone was hoarse, or rough”. 

As several others before him, the witness recounted a situation in the so-called “gas chamber”, where he claimed to have seen Abbasi. The witness described how the prisoners were kept in a poorly ventilated room and that some of the prisoners fainted because of the lack of oxygen. When the door was opened, the prisoners had rushed out as fast as they could. The witness was among the first people to get out. Outside the room, the witness noticed Naserian, Lashkari, Hamid Abbasi and 7-8 other guards. None of the prisoners wore blindfolds at the time. Some of those who had fainted were dragged out of the room. The guards began beating the prisoners. According to the witness, the mistreatment was carried out by the prison staff to break a hunger strike that the prisoners had initiated. The witness further described how the prisoners, after the beating, were forced by Lashkari to eat at least a spoonful of rice from a big pot that had been brought there. “If someone didn’t eat, he would be taken back to the gas chamber. So, we had a spoon each and then we were brought back to our sections.” 

The witness claims that he was beaten by Abbasi with something he remembered as a cable or a baton as he was running out of the “gas chamber”. The injuries he received from this later led to him losing his sight on one eye. The witness described how he experienced a lot of pain and had a swelling on his face after the beating. He was afraid to turn to the guards for help, since he was scared that they would take him to the isolation cell. A month after the incident, the witness realized that he could not see through his right eye. He was told by the guards that he had to go through the “dadyari” for help. The witness explained that he tried to reach the “dadyari”, but that it was not until three months later that he was taken to an eye specialist. The doctor explained that he would have to come for a visit every six months because of the risk of infection, and that they may have to empty the whole eye socket. The witness did not get permission from the “dadyari” to revisit the eye specialist and today, he explained, “I can’t see anything with my right eye, but I can tell if it is light or dark. I can see shadows.

The witness was also asked by the prosecution about the situation in Evin prison when he was moved there from Gohardasht prison in 1367 (1988), during the alleged execution period. The witness explained that the prisoners were not allowed to go for walks and that they had no access to newspapers. The units had also been locked, so that the prisoners could not meet each other. During this time, the witness and his cellmates had gotten information from other prisoners about the executions. When the prisoners were allowed to receive visits again after the month of Mordad 1367, the  visits were not carried out during the same time as they used to. The witness explained that the visits were spread out over ten days, and he thought “that was so our families couldn’t meet each other…”  

When the prosecution had finished its questioning, plaintiff counsel Göran Hjalmarsson commenced with his questioning of the witness and asked about the defendant’s claim that MEK-members testified in this trial because Plaintiff 1 had threatened or insulted them. The witness replied that several plaintiffs and witnesses had tried to get in contact with Amnesty and other organizations to participate in preliminary investigation from the beginning. The witness explained that he had “lived with this nightmare, afraid that I would lose sight in the other eye too and not be able to see the world.” He then asked the members of the court whether they thought that he needed any other incentive than his own personal interest to testify against the defendant.

As in previous hearings with plaintiffs and witnesses, the defense team’s tactic focused on perceived discrepancies between the testimony given by the witness in court and the statement given to the Swedish police during the investigation. One such perceived discrepancy was that the witness had used another name for the person who the prosecution claim is the defendant in his hearing with the police. This led to a rather heated exchange between the witness, who claimed that he said the name wrong once and corrected himself afterward, and defense counsel Thomas Söderqvist, who argued that the “wrong” name had been repeated by the witness several times during the police hearing. 

Witness 3

The prosecution began their hearing by asking the witness where and why he was arrested and where and when he had served his prison sentence. The witness told the court that he was brought to Evin prison in 1360 (1981) and sentenced to ten years in prison. Four months later, he was transferred to Ghezel Hesar prison before being transferred back to Evin in 1365 (1986) where he continued to be incarcerated for about five years. The witness also explained that he was arrested because of his sympathies for the MEK. 

Upon questions from the prosecution, the witness explained that there had been a death corridor and a death committee in Evin prison as well. The witness recalled that he had been brought to the death corridor on three occasions and had stood before the death committee as many times. When telling the court about one of these occasions, the witness explained that he was told to remove his blindfold as he entered the room where the death committee sat. He then observed who he thought was Hossein Ali Nayyeri, Morteza Eshraqi, Mostafa Pourmohammadi and Iran’s current president Ebrahim Raisi. When the witness was taken to the death committee by one of the guards, he was told that this was a “pardon committee”. “Their whole endeavor was to hide their real purpose from the prisoners. After you had been brought to the death committee, you were brought back to another cell, so that you could not tell your cellmates what you experienced”. 

As the witness was still imprisoned in Evin prison after the alleged execution period, the prosecution wanted to know how the guards, and others responsible, acted when confronted by the prisoners about the executions. The witness explained that the ”regular guards” tried to say that they were not there during the time for the executions and that they made up excuses “like their wives were sick or pregnant and things like that”. The witness further described that he was once taken to the office of the head of security. This man had told the witness that “we are being pressured by human rights organisations. We’ve done this according to the decreet of the Imam. Those of you that have survived will be executed if you reconnect to the MEK and we will tell your families that you have gone to the Ashraf camp”.

The witness explained that after the execution period, the surviving prisoners, along with staff members from Gohardasht prison were transferred to Evin prison. “New ones arrived that I didn’t recognize: Naserian, Noury…”. The witness recounted one occasion when he had met  the two. He and a friend were taking a walk in the corridor, when Naserian and Noury walked up to them. According to the witness, Noury looked at his friend and said to him “what are you doing here? Are you still alive? You were lucky…but you won’t be next time.” The witness asked his prison mate who the guard was, and he was told it was Hamid Abbasi. His prison mates explained to him that both Naserian and Abbasi had active roles during the execution period in Gohardasht prison. 

After the prosecution’s hearing, plaintiff counsel Kenneth Lewis asked how the witness could be sure about which building the prisoners had been executed in, since he had said he was never brought there himself. The witness replied that he had heard this from friends. The witness told the court about one of his cellmates who had been brought to the execution place and forced to watch as five prisoners, three men and two sisters, were executed. The witness cried as he recounted the memories. “When he [his cellmate] came back, he was not the same person. It’s hard to describe the change with words, but it felt like he came from another world”. 

The witness was then asked a few questions by defense counsel Daniel Marcus, who asked the witness whether he had followed the trial prior to his own hearing. The witness answered that he was aware that the trial is being broadcasted online but that he has no time to follow it systematically. The defense counsel told the witness that he asked this since he had noted that the witness, during the hearing, had said that “nobody talks about Evin here”. Therefore, he made the conclusion that the witness had kept track of what was being said by others during the trial thus far. The witness replied that he had been told in a police hearing during the preliminary investigation that the questions would focus on Gohardasht prison. “Naturally, with that explanation I thought that this whole trial was about Gohardasht and not Evin”.  

Witness 4

The trial day was opened by judge Zander stating that the witness would be heard about his observations from Gohardasht prison during 1986-1989. The prosecution replied that it needed to expand the theme of the hearing to involve the witness’ observations from Evin prison in 1989-1991, since such observations had been mentioned in his hearings with the police.  

The prosecution began its hearing by asking the witness where and why he was arrested and where and when he served his prison sentence. The witness told the court that he was brought to Evin prison in 1360 (1981), at the age of 24, and sentenced to four years in prison. He further explained that he was arrested because of his activities at the university where he was an activist during the revolution in Iran. He was also an active member of the MEK. In his sentence it was said that he sympathised with both the MEK and other political groups. The witness served his prison sentence in Evin prison in 1360-1361 (1981-1982) and in Ghezel Hesar prison in 1361-1362 (1982-1983). In 1362 he was transferred back to Evin where he spent two years. The witness described that during these two years he was tortured and interrogated and once again sentenced because of his sympathies with the MEK and three times sentenced to execution. In 1364 (1985) he was transferred back to Ghezel Hesar prison before he was transferred to Gohardasht prison in 1365 (1986) together with all the other political prisoners. In 1370 (1991) the witness was released from Gohardasht prison. 

The witness testified that he was beaten during investigations in Gohardasht prison. On one of these occasions, in 1365 (1986), he was hurt so badly that he was taken to Ghezel Hesar to have a surgery. After this surgery, the witness was still in a lot of pain. When he tried to get help for his medical issues, he was told that he had to go through the “dadyari”. At the ”dadyari”, the witness met the person who the prosecution claims is the defendant, Hamid Abbasi, who’s permission he needed to see a specialist doctor. Hamid Abbasi told the witness that he had to cooperate if he wanted to get accurate help. The witness was insulted when he told the “dadyar” that he did not want to cooperate since his medical problems had nothing to do with politics. 

When asked if he had met Hamid Abbasi on any other occasion, the witness described a situation in 1367 (1986) when he saw over fifty guards walking in small group formations passing the Gohardasht prison yard. The guards walked close behind a truck meant to transport frozen products. Among these guards were Hamid Abbasi, and Davoud Lashkari, who was driving a barrow full of ropes. The witness saw some of the guards laughing, but he especially remembered seeing one of them throwing up beside the roadside. The witness explained to the court  that he thought that this was “really strange” but that he did not understand at that time that there was “an approaching catastrophe”. The witness was asked by judge Zander to point at the model of the Gohardasht prison from where he did these observations. When the witness stood by the model, he recounted another situation that he wanted to tell the court. One night, the witness had seen two trucks driving outside the window that was standing by. As one of the trucks passed by, he saw that it was full of bags with dead bodies. Since there were so many bodies stacked on top of each other, the distance from where the witness saw them was not that far. The witness could not sleep that night and when he told his prison mates about the sight the morning after, they all understood there was an on-going execution. They hugged each other and said their goodbyes, not sure how much time they had left. 

The prosecution explained to the court that the situation described by the witness was information that he had not shared in his police hearing and asked the witness why. The witness replied that he had just answered the questions that the police had asked and that if he had not stood by the model, he might not have remembered that situation. “If I were to tell you all the memories I have from prison, it will take a lot of time”. 

During the defense team’s hearing with the witness, the witness was again asked about why he had not told the police about the dead bodies he had seen stacked on a by-passing truck. Defense counsel Thomas Söderqvist said to the court that the witness had told the police that he could not sleep that night and that he had said goodbye to his friends. Söderqvist found it strange that the witness had forgotten about the dead bodies when talking about that situation. The witness answered and repeated that if he had not stood by the model, he might have forgotten to give that information even today. 

Witness 5

The prosecution began their hearing by asking the witness where and why he was arrested and where and when he served his prison sentence. The witness told the court that he was brought to Evin prison at age 17, due to his sympathies for the MEK. He was transferred none less than seven times between Evin and Ghezel Hesar prison between the years 1360 (1981) and 1366 (1987). In 1987, he was taken to Gohardasht prison where he spent one year before being transferred back to Evin prison, from where he was released.

The witness was asked by the prosecution to describe the situation when he was transferred to Gohardasht prison. He replied that about 180 prisoners were moved there together and that most of them were MEK-members. As described by several plaintiffs and witnesses previously during the trial, the witness described how the prisoners, upon arriving to Gohardasht prison, would have to walk between the guards who had positioned themselves in the shape of a “tunnel”. As the prisoners walked through the “tunnel” of guards, they would be beaten by the guards on both sides with different objects. The witness claims that he saw the defendant among the guards in the tunnel. 

The witness further recalled an event that took place at a time when the management at Gohardasht prison had decided that everybody was going to celebrate the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The prison management at Gohardasht had set up a program for the day and the prisoners were allowed family visits. The visits took place in a hall where, as the witness had understood from others, prisoners had been executed. The witness mother was visiting him, which was the first time in a very long time that he could hug his mother. But, the witness explained, all he could think about was the people that had been executed in that room. The witness was asked by the prosecution if he saw the defendant there. He replied that he did see him, but that he was not sure what the defendant was doing at the time: “It was more important for me to focus on my family and to try to tell them what was going on in the prison”.

During the questioning by the defense team, the defense counsel Daniel Marcus explained that the witness had added to the information that he had provided in his hearing with the police, by sending the police a list of names a few days later. The list contained names of prisoners that he had shared sections with, prisoners who he knew had been executed and prisoners who were transferred together with him. The counsel explained that he found it strange that the witness could not come up with the names during the police hearing and asked if he had to talk to friends or read books about the events to remember. The witness answered that what the defense counsel was implying was wrong: “It has been many years. I wanted to give a correct answer and not forget any names.”

Witness 6

Witness 6 was brought to Evin prison in 1360 (1981) due to his sympathies for the MEK at the age of 13. The witness explained to the court that he was actually a sympathiser of his uncle who was a MEK-member. “He had an iconic role in my life”. At his young age, the witness described, he did not know anything about politics himself. The witness spent ten years in prison in both Evin and Gohardasht prison and was released from Evin in 1370.  

As the witness was describing how he was taken to a room for torture upon his arrival to Evin prison, he compared his situation to the defendant’s current arrest in Sweden “It’s a five-star hotel in comparison…”, which led to judge Zander scolding him for making such comparisons in his court room

The prosecution asked the witness about his sentence. The witness explained that upon his arrival to Evin prison in 1360 (1981), they had been  nine boys, out of which he was the youngest, who had been taken to court together. The trial was over within the span of a few minutes, after which they were all transferred to the execution hall. On their way there, Lajevardi, the prosecutor at Evin prison, had approached the witness and asked him if he had reached puberty. The witness could not answer Lajevardi as he did not understand what he asked him about, and the witness was then separated from the others. The witness could observe the situation from a distance and saw how the boys who he had been transferred together with were placed against a wall and shot to death. Several months later, he received a ten-year prison sentence. The witness explained that until the day he got his sentence, he thought that he would also be executed. 

The witness described how family visits began to take place after the execution period in 1367 (1988) and that the visits took place in the hall that had been used for executions. The witness recalled how marks from the ropes that had been used to hang prisoners were still visible on the joists of the roof in the room. He further recounted how the prison managers prior to receiving visitors said that “we should not have sentenced you to long imprisonment, we should have killed you all”. When the families arrived, the managers used another language and said things that would make them think that their loved ones would soon be released. The witness described how the prisoners’ relatives, who had visited them for many years, had become like one big family. They shared information among each other, which they passed on to the prisoners. Some of the families, the prisoners were told, had been informed by the prison that their sons, husbands, and brothers had been executed. Some learned where the body was buried, and others never got to know. 

Plaintiff counsel Göran Hjalmarsson asked the witness whether he had ever gotten a medical diagnose of his psychological state due to his experiences from prison. The witness answered that he had been diagnosed with a severe form of PTSD, which makes him re-live painful memories. This was affecting his sleep and everyday-life and made it difficult for him to remember names and dates.

The defense team focused its hearing with the witness on perceived discrepancies between the statements made by the witness in court and  statements made during his hearing with the Swedish police. The defense team also brought up a summary of the witness story, which has been published in Abdorraham Boroumand Foundation’s report about the 1988 mass executions and pointed to the fact that he had given a detailed testimony to the authors of the report without mentioning the name of the person who the prosecution claim is the defendant. The witness replied that he had focused on the persons who played a “main character” in the events that he was describing, which were the mass executions of 1988.

Witness 7

The prosecution began their hearing by asking the witness where and why he was arrested and where and when he served his prison sentence. The witness told the court that he was arrested twice. The first time in 1360 (1981), suspected of sympathies for the MEK, and the second time, in 1361 (1982). After his second arrest, which happened because he was a member of the leftist organization Peykar, he was brought to Evin prison. In 1362 (1983) the witness was transferred to Ghezel Hesar prison where he spent two years before he was moved to Gohardasht prison, together with all the other political prisoners in Ghezel Hesar prison. By that time, he had served his five-year long prison sentence. When the witness was supposed to be released, the prison managers at the “dadyari” set conditions for him to be able to be released. Since the witness did not agree to these, he remained in prison. He was moved back to Evin prison in the end of 1366 (1987) and spent his last year in prison at Gohardasht prison before he was released in 1368 (1989). 

The witness further described how he had met the defendant, when he when he had been brought to the “dadyari” in Gohardasht prison to discuss his release in 1987. The defendant had first told the witness “in a calm way”, that he hoped that he would “start a new and healthy life and leave the political actions behind” and to “find work and get married” now that he had served his sentence.  The witness was then told by the defendant, to fill in a couple of documents through which he ensured that he would not  cooperate with any political organisations again. The witness replied that ”My organisation does not longer exist. How could I condemn something that does not exist… I think you are afraid of the ghost of the organisation”. According to the witness, the defendant then got angry and put his hands around the witness neck and smashed his head against a table. He shouted “who said you will ever be released. I will kill you here and now”. After a while, the defendant had released his grip and the witness had been taken to solitary confinement while bleeding from his head. 

The prosecution asked the witness if he could receive family visits during his imprisonment, upon which the witness responded that he had only had one personal visit while incarcerated in Evin prison. According to the witness, he and his family were invited by the defendant, “Abbasi”, who had told the witness’ family that the witness could be released whenever he wanted if he just signed the “letters of regret”. His parents had cried and asked him to sign the documents so that he could come home. 

The witness was further questioned by defense counsel Daniel Marcus. The counsel brought up a detail from the police hearing with the witness and asked if it was correct that the witness had told the police that there was a prison section for female prisoners in Evin prison in 1366. The counsel also asked if the witness together with other prisoners had ever attempted to contact these women through the air ducts. The witness responded that it was correct that there had been a section for female prisoners, but that the section that he had mentioned was in Gohardasht prison and not in Evin. When the defense team finalized its hearing, the prosecution took the floor again and asked whether it was common that female prisoners were kept in Gohardasht prison and if the witness was ever in contact with them. He replied that “the two times” that women were brought to Gohardasht prison had been exceptions. When that had happened, some of the women had found their partners, brothers or co-workers among the male prisoners. When the witness had once tried to contact the female prisoners together with a couple of other male prisoners, they got beaten and taken to solitary confinement.   

Next report

In our next report, we will provide summaries of hearings with witnesses 8 and 9 which were held on 20 and 22 December. 

A translated version of this report in Farsi can be found here.