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Guest of the Shah

Richard Savin, a licensed British arms salesman, arrived in Italy in November after serving thirty months in an Iranian prison. His account of conditions there contrasts sharply with official Iranian claims that no brutality, beatings, or torture go on inside the country’s prisons. Mr. Savin was interviewed in Rome for the International Herald Tribune by Christopher Matthews, formerly the Rome bureau chief for Reuters and currently a freelance contributor to both the International Herald Tribune and Newsweek. Mr. Matthews has given The New York Review this account of how he obtained the interview:

I’d like to be able to say that the following report on prison conditions in Iran was the result of skill, perseverance, and intense dedication on my part. It wasn’t. Savin had a story to tell and was looking for a reporter to talk to. A friend of mine who works as an advertising copywriter called me and said he knew of an Englishman who’d just come out of jail in Iran and had horror stories to tell. Would I like to hear them? We arranged to have dinner together.

The strange coincidence of being approached, just at the moment when Iran was falling into chaos, by a man whose story sounded as if it would do the Shah’s reputation no good obviously had not escaped me. I have no reason to suspect, in fact I completely trust, the ad man who served as intermediary, but, inevitably, when we sat down to dinner, I was looking as hard as I could for flaws in Savin’s story. There was never, by the way, any question of paying him.

Savin was tall, sandy-haired, intense, and high on his own story. He could talk about nothing else and this, to my mind, was the first sign of authenticity. Anyone trying to con you at least has the sense to switch subjects when your eyes start glazing over. Not Savin. He talked of Savak, Vakilabad prison, and the Shah for three hours.

Savin was staying in the country north of Rome where he intends to settle and farm. I can’t be too precise about details because, as he told me, Savak had already tried to strangle him once after he got out and he wasn’t keen on repeating the experience. We agreed to meet at his country place for a formal interview which would be taperecorded and in which I could ask any questions I liked.

During dinner, the point was to see what sort of a story Savin had to tell and the conversation ranged pretty much over his entire life up to, during, and after his months in jail. The circumstances of his arrest were complex. He was returning from Pakistan where he was supposed to deliver an automobile to a local politician as a bribe for help with an arms deal, but the Pakistani had got cold feet. Savin was on his way to an African country where a £20,000 sterling commission awaited him for another deal obtained by roughly the same methods. The details of this story were tiresomely complicated but again, it had an authentic feel about it. The tale came out as convoluted, chaotic, blurred at the edges. Any con artist would have tried to do a better job of presenting his wares.

Then Savin told me how Savak agents had tailed him for two weeks after his release from prison. They were looking for incriminating documents, evidence of connections with Iranian dissidents. He said they rearrested him, beat him up, and tried to strangle him in the train bound for the border. Finally they set him free. That was a story on its own, but there was no way I could see of cramming it into a 1,500-word piece. It seemed reasonable to conclude from dinner that Savin did have a story to tell, that it was probably true, but the part of it that would make a news story would have to be obtained by questioning him carefully about what he saw in prison.

At the interview, the first question had to be, “Can you demonstrate that you’re not an impostor, or a lunatic?” It’s impossible to be absolutely certain about the answer, but Savin did manage to dispel reasonable doubts. He had a box full of his prison diaries—had Savak bothered to look in his kitbag rather than going for his throat, they would have found what they were looking for and put him back in prison. He had letters that had been addressed to him at the jail. He had snapshots. He had legal documents dealing with his court appearances. He even referred me to an Italian friend who had done a shorter spell at Vakilabad for trying to take a kilo of Afghan hashish home as a holiday souvenir. This man, a business executive, corroborated Savin’s story, adding some gruesome details of his own. He told me he had never spoken to the press for the simple reason that his employers and family hadn’t heard about his brush with the Iranian law. He didn’t want them thinking he was a dope fiend.

There was only one point of Savin’s story that I tried and failed to verify. He told me how inmates at Vakilabad made cutting edges resembling razor blades by heating and pressing cigarette filters. When I tried it, I ended up with a bunch of charred filters and amputated cigarettes.

In Rome, I made inquiries about Savin to a colleague whom I knew had solid connections in the Italian and British intelligence business. He agreed to ask his contacts to run a check on Savin and, within a few days, the answer came back. Yes, Savin was English; he did sell arms; he had been arrested on the border on drug charges. And yes, he had done thirty months in jail, and had in fact been a considerable embarrassment to the British embassy in Tehran.

The rest was just the normal, tedious routine of playing the tapes back, and rearranging them and my notes into the news story that follows.

* * *

ROME—A few weeks before his release from Vakilabad jail, in the eastern Iran province of Khorosan, Richard Savin almost tripped over an Afghan slumped in a basket outside one of the cells. The Afghan’s right eye was hanging out of its socket. Both his arms had been broken at the elbows, and blood was dripping from his hands.

I hardly noticed,” said Mr. Savin. “In two and a half years at Vakilabad, the sight of beaten, tortured bodies had become so commonplace, it just didn’t register anymore.”

Mr. Savin, a thirty-eight-year-old Briton, entered Vakilabad in May, 1976, to serve a two-year sentence for smuggling 5.5 kilograms of hashish from Iran into Afghanistan. He maintains that the drug was planted in his car in an obscure vendetta connected with his job selling weapons systems on behalf of British Aircraft Equipment Ltd.

Mr. Savin served six months beyond his official sentence but counts himself lucky. Like most of the 3,500 prisoners in the US-built, maximum security prison, he had no idea of when, if ever, he would get out. On top of his term, the court imposed a three million rial ($50,000) fine. Failing payment of this, he was to serve a day in prison for every gram of hashish found—in his case sixteen years.

An American prisoner from Los Angeles, one of the thirty-five Europeans and North Americans in Vakilabad, was fined $6 million after being caught with seventy kilograms of drugs. “He’s since been released but, like many of us, he was theoretically there for life,” Mr. Savin said. “The point was to keep you from knowing when you’d be getting home. It was just another form of psychological tyranny.”

This began the moment of arrival at Vakilabad, a concrete and steel complex in the desert twelve kilometers from Mashad. Mr. Savin, like other newcomers, was placed straight in Bloc 5, reserved for the criminally insane. The cell, twenty meters long and five meters wide, contained 200 prisoners in varying mental conditions, including homicidal mania. “It was complete, twenty-four-hour bedlam,” Mr. Savin said. “People constantly touching you, tugging at your clothes, attacking you, playing practical jokes. There was no question of sleep.”

There was the water man, convinced that water was dripping on his head, who would have screaming fits lasting ten minutes at a time. There was the midnight streaker, who would run up and down the room all night. There were the quiet men, who had manufactured lethal knives out of tin can tops and ballpoint pens. There were brutal guards who nightly, at random, beat someone unconscious, after distributing tranquilizers and other sedatives by the handful.

That’s where I spent my first night,” Mr. Savin said. “It was their way of telling me—this is what it can be like if you don’t tow the line.” Subsequently, he made two return visits as punishment for indiscipline.

Iranian political prisoners were kept in Bloc 5 for months at a time. “It was straight, Gulag-Archipelago-KGB tactics,” said Mr. Savin. “Even so, it was better than Mujurat, or solitary confinement.” The isolation cell was one-meter square, so prisoners held there had to sit with their backs against the wall and their knees under their chins. Their wrists and ankles were manacled and they were allowed no blankets, even in the subzero temperatures of winter, when it got so cold there was ice on the walls. Political offenders were kept in solitary for three months at a time, and beaten every day, Mr. Savin said.

Vakilabad housed 350 political prisoners. A typical case was that of Mohammed, an academic arrested by the Iranian secret police, Savak, for possession of two Marxist pamphlets. Hoping to extract information from him about other dissidents, Savak subjected him to daily beating and tortures including electric shocks to the temples and genitals, red hot needles under the nails, and, a favorite at the jail, the “hot-egg tango,” so-called because “it makes you thrash about quite a bit.” The treatment consists in forcing a scalding, hard-boiled egg up a prisoner’s rectum. “It slowly cooks your insides,” Mr. Savin said. “Also popular was anal rape with riot sticks.”

Halfway through September, when rioting began all over Iran, the jail began to fill up with politicals at the rate of seventy to eighty a day, and led to a total population of around 5,000, Mr. Savin said. “They were cramming them into every available space. About that time, I went into what used to be a baggage room. It was full of people squatting on the floor, every one of them heavily bandaged after their beatings. Politicals get thrashed as soon as they arrive, whether they’ve been tried or not.”

Although comparatively rare in the case of Europeans, brutality was a normal part of life at Vakilabad. Standard, ceremonial beatings involved clamping a wooden yoke around a prisoner’s ankles and raising his legs in the air with a chain. He would then be beaten on the soles of the feet with a lead-weighted rubber truncheon.

Treated even worse than the political prisoners were the Afghans, held, in almost all cases, on drug smuggling charges. “If an Afghani prisoner was foolish enough to complain, he’d have his mouth sewn up with a needle and thread,” Mr. Savin said. “After a couple of days he would be unsewn. ‘Still got something to complain about?’ the officer would then ask.”

He witnessed Afghan prisoners being made to walk on all fours, licking the ground as they went, or being forced to clean out toilet bowls with their tongues.

In effect, almost the only way for prisoners to leave the jail was by way of a baksheesh or pardon granted by the shah on his birthday, New Year’s day, and two other occasions a year. “There was no formal release or remission system,” Mr. Savin said. “Whether you stayed in or went free was simply a question of Oriental despotism.”

Mohammed Kourt, an Iranian opium smuggler from Baluchistan, was given a four-year remission on one of the shah’s birthdays after serving six years of his term. But he had, as frequently happens in Iran, been sentenced to both prison and death—in his case ten years followed by execution. The day after his baksheesh, he was taken out into the desert by a platoon and shot through the head. His body was left there and, if his family wanted to recover it, they would have to pay for the bullets, which was standard practice, Mr. Savin said.

Other executions were carried out by hanging in the military barracks next to the jail. “Not the English type of hanging where the neck is broken at once, but the slow kind where you’re left to dangle on the end of a rope and, if you’re lucky, someone comes and pulls on the end of your legs.” About 9,000 opium runners have been executed in the past ten years, according to Mr. Savin.

Drugs—opium, hashish, and pills—were freely available inside the jail, however, as was virtually anything else that money could buy. Senior officers at Vakilabad made free use of opium and prisoners soon learned to fear one officer’s drug “downers,” when he would indiscriminately destroy all their mail.

Rich opium smugglers could buy their freedom, and the cost of transferring from the Iranian and Afghan cell blocs to the cleaner European Bloc 1 was anything from 5,000 rials (or $80) and upward.

Everything was for sale,” Mr. Savin said, including the prison’s resident population of juveniles, aged between six and fifteen, who were usually serving short terms as petty thieves or for delinquency. Officers made free use of the boys, and would sell them to prisoners for 10,000 rials or $160 a time.

The shah’s claims that no torture or beatings go on in his jails are complete rubbish,” Mr. Savin said. “It is also untrue that thousands of political prisoners were pardoned. Maybe one or two were let free at Vakilabad but no more.”

On one occasion, a Swiss Red Cross team investigating Amnesty International charges of brutal conditions inside the jail was allowed access to a party of prisoners. After interviewing them, the Swiss investigators came away with a favorable impression—for the “detainees” they had spoken to were in fact Iranian army troopers who had been rounded up for the occasion. And a television crew that interviewed a European inmate was given a glowing account of prison conditions. The prisoner’s wife, who had come on a visit, was held hostage by prison authorities to make sure nothing went amiss.

By running around the prison yard and doing strenuous physical exercises, Mr. Savin managed to keep himself physically and mentally in shape. Even so, he lost twelve kilograms at Vakilabad, and others such as “Franz the walking dead” were less lucky. Franz, a German, left the jail weighing thirty-four kilograms and suffering from hepatitis, stomach ulcers, and rectal hemorrhages.

In comparison to the conditions the Iranians, the politicals, and the Afghanis were kept in, we had it easy,” Mr. Savin said. “I’m not here to whine about the treatment I received. But I feel it my duty to let people know the truth about how barbarously the shah’s prisoners are treated.”

Letters

Now Read the Book May 17, 1979

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