Report 26: Witness hearings pt. 6

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 hearings with witnesses 14 and 17 which were held on 11 and 14 February. In this report we will provide summaries of hearings with witness 18 and 19 which were held on 15 and 18 February.

Witness 18

Judge Zander started the trial day by welcoming the witness and by emphasising the importance of respecting the time limits reserved for each legal party during the hearing of each individual witness. The judge noted that previous time limits had not been kept by the parties and that hearings had dragged on for longer than scheduled. He then gave the floor to the prosecution.

Prosecutor Hanna Lemoine, who was temporarily filling the position of her colleague in the trial, initiated the hearing by asking the witness why, when and where he had been incarcerated in the 1360’s. The witness responded that he had been arrested because he had been politically active in an organisation that had leftist political ideals for a long period of time, and that he was arrested on 4 Esfand 1362 (1984). He received his verdict a year after his arrest and was initially sentenced to death. However, his verdict was later changed to 15 years. The witness served his prison sentence in several prisons but was sent to Gohardasht prison in 1365 (1986/1987) and transferred to Evin prison towards the end of 1367 (1989) where he was incarcerated for a short period of time before being released on 4 Esfand 1367 (1989). The witness explained the reason why he was released after 5 years, instead of the 15 years, together with the remaining 300 surviving prisoners from Gohardasht. After being transferred to Evin, they were brought to a street in buses and released there. The witness explained that the early release and the way in which it was made was likely because the government wanted positive publicity domestically and internationally in the wake of the mass-executions.

The prosecution moved on to ask the witness about the leadership in Gohardasht prison. The witness said that he encountered a person by the name of Mortazavi during his first day in Gohardasht prison, who introduced himself as the head of the prison. The witness did not meet this person again after that day. Others who held leading positions in the prison were Naserian, Lashkari and Abbasi. The witness met these three individuals personally during his incarceration. Naserian and Abbasi were part of the “dadyari” while Lashkari worked with security and operative activities. The reason that the witness was aware of which position that Abbasi held, he explained, was because it was not kept a secret. When prisoners had to see the “dadyar”, the guards would simply say that they should go and see Abbasi or Naserian.

The witness recounted that he had encountered Abbasi on several occasions. In one instance, during the month of Mehr 1367 (1988), approximately a month after the mass-executions, he was called to Abbasi’s office. Abbasi met him in a corridor outside of the office and confronted him about a form that Lashkari had asked him in 1366 (1987/1988) to fill in about his religious faith, whether he did his prayers and whether he recognized the Islamic Republic of Iran. The witness had answered no to those questions. Abbasi explained that he had previously lost this document and that if he had found it a month earlier, the witness would not have survived. The witness said that he believes that Abbasi wished him dead then and that he likely wishes him dead now. In another instance, likely in the month of Bahman 1367 (1989), he had seen Abbasi escort prisoners to an interview that other prisoners were forced to watch.

The witness indicated early on in the hearing that he might have seen Abbasi on other occasions, but later said that he did not remember whether he had seen him prior to these events. However, the witness had explained early in the hearing that he had trouble remembering details regarding when and where he might have seen Abbasi other than at these two occasions, due to the psychological pressure that he has suffered after his experiences in prison. He further added that the pressure had led him to suffer a heart attack at the age of 38. Thus, he had attempted to forget his experiences from prison. He was not able to forget his personal encounters with Abbasi, however.

When asked whether the defendant was the same person that the witness had seen in prison, the witness responded that he was certain that he remembered the defendants face and that he was the same person that he referred to as Abbasi. He explained that he had a background as a painter and that he had a particular ability to recognize and remember details in people’s faces. The defendant’s face was forever engraved in his mind, even though he had attempted to forget it. When he had seen the defendant’s face again after several years, a lot of bad memories had resurfaced. When asked by the prosecution to look at the defendant and tell the court whether he was the same man that he had known as Abbasi during his time in Gohardasht prison, the witness responded that he was one hundred percent certain that it was.

The prosecution also asked the witness about his observations during the period of Mordad and Shahrivar 1367 (1988). The witness recounted how guards had arrived at his section and taken the televisions and newspapers. The witness and the other prisoners were made aware by morse code communications by prisoners in other sections that interrogations were being conducted and that executions were being carried out. Two prisoners had earlier, in the month of Shahrivar 1367 (1988), been taken from the witness’ section, brought to where the executions were to take place and forced to write their wills. They had then been sent back to the section and were shaken by the experience. The prisoners in the witness’ section, section five, were not taken to see the death committee. However, the death committee had sent a list to the section which the prisoners had to fill in. The list contained around 100 names and the prisoners were supposed to fill in whether they were Muslims and whether they prayed. All prisoners in section five had beforehand decided to answer in the same manner. They answered that they were Muslims but refused to do their prayers. As punishment for not accepting to do their prayers, they were whipped. The reason why prisoners in section five were not taken to see the committee was that, at this point, information about the questions that were being asked and about the right answer to those questions had already spread. Therefore, there was no longer any point in questioning the prisoners from section five, since they would all answer in the same manner.

The witness was further asked about several people and what had happened to them. Amongst them, the witness spoke about a MEK sympathiser who he was familiar with because the two of them had been responsible for the Persian New Year celebrations together for 13 days in the year 1366 (1987) in Gohardasht prison. The witness had later learned from other prisoners who sympathised with the MEK that the person had been executed. The witness further told the court that he specifically remembers this person because he has had a reoccurring dream about him for 20 years. In his dreams, he sees the person hanged.  

During the hearing by the plaintiff counsels, the counsels asked the witness about different persons who had been executed in Gohardasht prison. The witness was answering a question from counsel Ghita Hadding, when the defendant suddenly stood up and yelled out loud in the courtroom that the witness was expressing insults. Apparently, the defendant had reacted to a word which the interpreter translated as “executioner”. The defendant pointed his right arm up in the air, stared at the witness and yelled that “the mother and father” of the witness were “executioners”, upon which the witness told the court that the defendant was not allowed to insult him. After a few failed attempts to calm the yelling defendant, the judge himself raised his voice. He then scolded both the defendant and the witness and expressed that no insults would be tolerated in the courtroom. The witness protested and explained that he had not directly insulted the defendant but that the defendant had insulted him, which only further aggravated the judge. The court thus broke for an early lunch.

After the plaintiffs’ councils had finalized their questioning, the defence attorney Thomas Söderqvist began his line of questioning. He noted the fact that the witness had only served five years of his 15-year sentence. He further asked the witness if he had been following the trial prior to giving his testimony in court, upon which the witness replied that he had only followed it a little.

The defence noted that the witness had said during his testimony in court that he had seen the defendant when interviews of prisoners were being conducted in Gohardasht prison, but that he had not mentioned that event in his hearing with the police, despite being given an opportunity to describe further occasions when he may have met the defendant in prison. The witness confirmed that he had not told the police about the event and explained that he had only described the occasions to the police where he had personally spoken to Abbasi.

The witness was further asked about whether he had ever spoken publicly about his time in prison, and if so, whether he had ever mentioned the defendant. The defendant said that he had spoken publicly about his experiences and that he did not remember whether he had mentioned the defendant. The witness explained that if he had not mentioned the defendant, it would be because the defendant had held a lower rank in the prison. He has, however, mentioned the names of the defendant’s superiors.  

After the judge had concluded the hearing, he thanked the witness for appearing in court and providing his testimony. The witness expressed his gratitude to the court for the time that it has dedicated to this matter and noted that the court was tasked with a difficult assignment due to the time that had passed since the crimes had taken place and due to the legal constraints surrounding the case. He lamented that the indictment had not been correctly formulated, as, in his opinion, what had taken place was rather a genocide. He further underlined that the victims were not just prisoners, but that they were all persons who had struggled, whether they were members of the MEK, Tudeh, Fadaian or any other group.

The defendant then asked to speak and apologized for his previous outburst. He thanked the judge for his leadership and that it had not been his intention earlier to be disrespectful. He further said that the witness took advantage of the opportunity to appear in court to speak ill of the Islamic Republic and asked the judge to prevent that people speak against the Islamic Republic of Iran in the courtroom. The judge responded that he had never previously in his career experienced behaviour like he had during this trial and that it was a “mission impossible” to keep the order in the courtroom.

Judge Zander then turned to plaintiff counsel Göran Hjalmarsson to ask about a request from one of his clients, who had asked to withdraw her status as an injured party in the case and whether he could confirm the request. Counsel Hjalmarsson responded that he was not ready to confirm the request and was asked by Judge Zander to confirm during the following Friday. The court hearing with the plaintiff has been re-scheduled several times over the last few months, allegedly for health reasons, and her hearing will be revoked if her status as plaintiff is revoked.

Witness 19

The trial day on 18 February commenced with judge Zander welcoming the witness to the court, before handing the floor to the prosecution.

The prosecution initiated the hearing by stating that it would ask questions about a book which the witness has written. The witness was further asked when, where and why he had been imprisoned. The witness responded that he was arrested on the 26 of the month of Dey 1361 (1983) at the age of 19. In the autumn of 1362 (1983) he was taken to a court and sentenced to 8 years in prison for his engagement with the leftist organisation Fadaian-Khalq-e Iran, for inciting people to rise up against the government and for attempting to coordinate counter-revolutionary forces. During this court hearing he was blindfolded, and the trial was concluded in a matter of minutes.

From the month of Dey to the month of Bahman 1361 (1983), the witness was held in section 209 and subjected to lashing. He was moved from there into solitary confinement in Gohardasht prison, because his feet and legs were severely infected from the lashing to the point where he could not be lashed anymore. He stayed in solitary confinement until the month of Tir 1362 (1983), at which point he was transferred to Evin prison. In Evin prison he received his sentence and was transferred to Ghezel Hezar prison in the month of Aban 1362 (1983), where he stayed until the summer of 1365 (1986). He was then transferred back to Evin prison, until he was once again transferred to Gohardasht prison in the month of Bahman 1366 (1988). He stayed in Gohardasht prison until the month of Esfand 1367 (1989), upon which he was brought to Evin prison and released within a few weeks.

The witness described the brutal treatment that prisoners received when arriving to Gohardasht prison. The prisoners were blindfolded and forced to strip down to their underwear. Once they arrived at the prison section, the guards would line up on each side of the corridor and would physically assault the prisoners with punches, kicks and cables as they moved through the corridor.

When asked about the leadership in Gohardasht prison, the witness responded that Naserian was in charge, while Lashkari was head of the guards, and Abbasi was a “dadyar”. The witness had seen Abbasi multiple times during his time at Gohardasht prison. The three of them used to come to the witness’ section to inspect it, and at these occasions, Abbasi would walk behind Naserian and appear to be taking notes of what the other two were saying.

In the month of Shahrivar at 9 in the morning, the witness was informed that executions were taking place. Half an hour later, the prisoners in the witness’ section were told to put on their blindfolds and come out. They were then taken into a connecting hall where a table was placed, behind which Lashkari was seated. The witness noted that Abbasi was also present. The witness was asked a series of questions of a religious character, that he had refused to answer. The prisoners were then divided into three groups depending on how they had responded to the questions. Group one and two were made up by those who had said that they were still Marxists and those who had chosen not to answer the questions. These two groups, to which he belonged, were taken to the so-called death committee.

There, Nayyeri, Naserian and a few others were seated. The committee asked the defendant similar questions as asked before; “Are you a Muslim and do you pray?” The witness understood that the questions were designed to figure out if he was to be executed or not. Therefore, he decided to answer their questions this time and responded that he did not have a religion. He was later taken out of the room in which the death committee was presiding and told to sit on the floor in the corridor outside. There, the witness saw other prisoners being given a pen and paper. The witness believed that they were forced to write their wills. He also believed that he would be given a pen and paper as well before being executed. Instead, he was taken to the amphitheatre where Naserian and Lashkari and some guards were and where a type of metal bed had been placed.  He and the other prisoners were told that they would be whipped 10 times laying over the metal bed for every prayer that they had missed that day. At that point, they had missed four prayers and would therefore be whipped 40 times. The prisoners were told that they were a type of apostate that could either accept Islam or be whipped to death.

After being whipped 20 times, the witness and the other prisoners were forced to stand up. The witness believed that the purpose of making them stand between whippings was to make the prisoners nerves active after the first round of whipping so they would not be numb for the second round. While the prisoners were on their feet, they were pushed between guards and assaulted repeatedly. One guard had then stopped beating the witness and asked him where he was from. The witness responded, upon which the guard told the other guards that he could not assault him.  Therefore, the witness was moved to a different location and seated next to another group of prisoners. After this event, he was not abused in the same manner again. 

Upon question from the prosecution, the witness estimated that an approximate of 43 persons out of the 74 persons in his section were executed during this time period.

The witness was further asked about a book which he had published in 1378 (1999). He told the court that the book was about the conditions in the prison and that it contained the names of the 4799 people who had been executed. Every name had been confirmed by two different sources. The witness had first collected testimony from witnesses and had then corroborated the information by reading reports.  

The prosecution moved on to ask the witness to describe the physical attributes of the person who the prosecution claims is the defendant while he was working in Gohardasht prison. The witness described the hair colour, facial hair, clothing, body build and gait of the person that the prosecution claims is the defendant. When asked to look at the defendant in the courtroom and say whether the defendant was the same person that the witness had seen in Gohardasht prison, the witness responded that he was indeed the same person that he had seen in Gohardasht prison and had referred to as Abbasi.

The privately appointed plaintiff counsel Kenneth Lewis started his hearing by asking the witness questions about the book that the witness had published. The counsel wanted to know how many of the 4799 people mentioned in the book that had been executed at Gohardasht prison and whether they were political or religious prisoners. The witness explained that approximately 500 of the individuals named in the book had been executed in Gohardasht prison, and of those, about 125 were political or non-religious prisoners. The names mentioned in the book were exclusively names of persons whom the witness and others had been able to confirm had been executed.

Once the plaintiff counsels had concluded their hearing with the witness, defence counsel Thomas Söderqvist started his line of questioning by asking the witness about the leadership in the prison and about the alleged position of the defendant. The defence pointed to alleged discrepancies between the witness’ earlier statements to the police and his testimony in court. In the police hearings, the witness had said that Abbasi served as a clerk or an assistant to Lashkari, rather than that he was a “dadyar”. In the court hearing, the witness explained that there might have been errors in the interpretation during the police hearing, as he had always meant that Abbasi had been a “dadyar” and less senior.

The witness was further asked whether he had followed the trial before appearing in court to give his testimony. He responded that he had not actively searched for news about the case, but that he had come across some reporting in media.

When asked whether he had been taken to the so-called death committee on more than one occasion, which he had previously testified that he had, the witness responded that he had been taken to the death committee a second time a few days after the first time. The defence counsel questioned the fact that the witness could recall the date and time of the first time he was brought to the death committee, but that he could not do the same regarding the second time. The witness responded that this was due to the chock that he suffered after facing the committee the first time. The defence focused its questioning on the timeline of the events that had unfolded in the month of Shahrivar 1376 (1988), from the point that the witness had learned that executions were ongoing and onwards.

The witness was further asked about another book about the 1988 mass-executions, which he had contributed to. The defence asked if the witness had written anything about his own experiences in the book and whether he had mentioned the defendant in those writings. The witness responded that he had in fact described his experiences in the book, but that he had not mentioned the defendant.

Next report

In our next report, we will provide summaries of the hearings with witnesses 20, 21 and 22, which were held 21 and 23 February.

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