• Email
  • Print

Letter from an Iranian Prisoner

INTRODUCTION

Shaul Bakhash

In a letter composed shortly before his arrest on January 27 by agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, or state security, Faraj Sarkuhi, the Iranian writer and editor of the literary journal Adineh, writes: “I await imminent arrest or an incident whereby I will be murdered and my death will be presented as a suicide. Torture, prison, and death await me.” This was Sarkuhi’s fourth arrest in five months. Sarkuhi’s journal has been a forum for left-wing views. But his troubles appear to derive not so much from the contents of Adineh as from his activities in support of freedom of expression and the war that Iran’s security authorities have been waging against intellectuals of all stripes.

Sarkuhi also appears to be caught in the web of an elaborate plot hatched by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence to discredit the government of Germany, where a trial has been under way of an Iranian and four Lebanese. They are charged with the 1992 assassination of the leader of Iran’s Kurdish Democratic Party and three companions while they were dining at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. In March 1996, the German Federal Prosecutor issued a warrant for the arrest of Ali Fallahian, the Iranian Minister of Intelligence, for his alleged role in planning the assassination; the prosecutor has also implicated Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. This direct linking of Iran’s highest officials with the killing has roused the anger of the Iranian government and helps to explain Sarkuhi’s nightmarish predicament.

Sarkuhi was one of the writers who signed the October 1994 Iranian “Declaration of 134,” calling for freedom of literary expression. The declaration was in part a response to the imprisonment of the respected writer and satirist Ali-Akbar Saidi-Sirjani, who had been arrested on fabricated charges of spying, homosexuality, and drug use, and died while in police custody in November 1994. Since then, two more writers—both signers of the declaration—have died. The body of the translator Ahmad Mir-Alai was found in an Isfahan alley, far from his usual haunts, in October 1995—a death friends also attributed to interrogation at the hands of the security authorities. The essayist and translator Ghaffar Hosseini was found dead in his apartment in November 1996. These incidents explain Sarkuhi’s fear that he would be killed and his death made to appear the result of an accident or suicide.

This past August, Sarkuhi and five other prominent writers and intellectuals were at dinner at the home of the German cultural attaché, Jens Gust, when security agents burst in, filmed all the guests, and briefly held the Iranians. News about the party, the fact that alcohol was served and that men and unveiled women were “fraternizing,” was leaked to the papers. Nothing else happened at the time, but the Iranian participants feared, rightly as it turns out in the case of Sarkuhi, that the ground was being laid for charges of espionage and illicit activities.

In September the security authorities broke up a meeting of a number of writers, including Sarkuhi, who were drawing up a new charter for the Writers Association, which emphasized freedom of expression. Sarkuhi was subsequently arrested and held for two days, during which he was beaten and questioned.

On November 3, Sarkuhi “disappeared” at Tehran airport, where he was to catch a plane to Germany to visit his wife and children. The Iranian authorities claimed he had boarded his flight; the German authorities have stated that they have no record of his ever having arrived in Germany. On December 20, a distraught-looking Sarkuhi suddenly reappeared and held a press conference at Tehran airport, where he claimed he had been in Germany all this time but had never contacted his wife, and had returned to Iran by way of Turkmenistan. (The Iranians later produced Sarkuhi’s passport showing a German entry stamp, but the German newspaper Die Welt said that its sources described the stamp as a fake.)

In fact, as Sarkuhi’s letter reveals, he had been arrested at Tehran airport on November 3 and spent a harrowing seven weeks under interrogation. He was compelled, by beatings and intense psychological pressure, to confess, among other things, that he was in the pay of foreign governments; that he had been spying for France and Germany; that he gave his journal an ideological slant dictated by the French and German embassies; and that he had had extramarital relations with several women. He was also forced to implicate his writer friends in acts of sexual promiscuousness. The “confessions” were videotaped, Sarkuhi writes, and made to look like interviews. Sarkuhi was also compelled to “back-date” his interviews to his September arrest, so it could be said he “confessed” before he went to Germany. The statements he made at his December 20 press conference, Sarkuhi writes, were also dictated by the authorities. Sarkuhi concludes that, from the taped dinner party conversation at the house of the German cultural attaché to his forced confession and the trip-that-never-happened to Germany, the Intelligence Ministry was concocting “evidence” to implicate the Germans in espionage and to discredit the Iranian intelligentsia as treasonable and immoral.

Sarkuhi was released after his airport press conference on December 20. Certain that he would be arrested again, believing he would be killed, and wishing to explain why he had confessed to “lies” and “fabrications,” Sarkuhi wrote an account of his arrest and interrogation which found its way abroad. Excerpts from this letter appear below.* It shows that the kinds of physical and psychological torture common in the USSR during the Stalin era are now being practiced in Iran.

Sarkuhi’s fate is part of a general crackdown by Iran’s security apparatus on writers and intellectuals. During the last three years, several newspapers and journals have been suspended or closed down. In January 1996 the editor of another literary magazine, Gardun, was sentenced to 65 lashes and six months in jail. His license to publish was revoked and he was barred for two years from any form of journalism. He managed to go abroad before being sent to jail. The well-known Islamic philosopher Abdol-Karim Sorush, who argues that Islam is compatible with pluralism and open debate, has been prevented from speaking publicly since 1995, when club-wielding bullies physically assaulted him, stopping him from addressing university students in Tehran and Isfahan. The Intelligence Ministry is probably behind the by-now-notorious weekly television program “Identity,” which names and attacks supposedly Westernized intellectuals, writers, and artists as un-Islamic, morally corrupt, and disloyal to the Islamic Republic. On the program Benjamin Franklin’s portrait on the US $100 bill is often seen dissolving into the face of the person being attacked.

The Iranian authorities say they arrested Sarkuhi at the end of January because he was trying to leave the country illegally. Sarkuhi’s friends say he was rearrested while he was reporting in person to the Ministry of Intelligence, as he was required to do weekly. PEN reports that he remains under arrest.

AN OPEN LETTER

Faraj Sarkuhi

Today is January 3. I, Faraj Sarkuhi, am writing this note in great haste in the hope that one day someone or some people will read it so that Iranian and international public opinion and especially my loved ones—Farideh, Arash, and Bahar—will learn of the terrifying experiences I have had. Perhaps this note will never reach anyone. But I am hopeful that someone will read it and, after my arrest or death, will publish it so that there will be a document, a testament to the pain and suffering that I have experienced.

I don’t know how long I have. I await imminent arrest or an incident whereby I will be murdered and my death will be presented as a suicide. Torture, prison, and death await me. In this note, I will try only to write what has happened although I wish I could also explain my situation.

I fell victim to a plan that the Ministry of Information of Iran devised, and executed, and still is in the process of fulfilling. I don’t know what will follow next. I will write about everything that has happened until now.

I was arrested on November 3 at Mehrabad airport. They blindfolded me and took me by car to one of the secret prisons of the Ministry of Information. I remained there until [I was released on December 20]. The main phase of their plan had begun.

Based on the documents they showed me during the interrogations and the things they were saying among themselves, I found out that on that day [November 3], they had changed the photograph on my passport, and put someone else’s photo in place of mine. That person got my foreign currency allowance, did some shopping at the airport, and then went to Hamburg with my passport and my name, since my passport now has the Hamburg entry stamp. Later I found out that they had sent someone to Parvin [a friend in Tehran] to tell her that my flight had been delayed, that I was now going to leave with Lufthansa, and that she should call Germany to tell my family not to meet me at the airport as planned. Parvin’s message was received too late—and some people had come to meet me at the airport. By now, things were proceeding well, according to their plan.

From the very first or second day, they told me that I had been proclaimed “disappeared”: “It has been officially announced that you have left Iran, and your entry into Germany has been documented at Hamburg airport. You will remain in solitary confinement for a while. After the interrogations, interviews, and other inquiries, we will kill you and bury you secretly—or we’ll dump your body in Germany.” On the third or fourth day, they played me a recorded telephone conversation between my brother Esmail and my wife Farideh in which Esmail was telling Farideh that Mehrabad airport had officially declared I had departed from Iran. They made me hear it so that I would know they were serious.

The pressure began to intensify. No one can understand my emotional and psychological state—I was condemned to death, I had no hope. I wasn’t an official prisoner. I had “disappeared” without a trace. My situation was different from that of other prisoners, even the ones who were sentenced to die. A prisoner, even on death row, can hope for amnesty, can write a letter or draft a will. A regular prisoner can entertain hopes of being relieved from solitary confinement; but for me, imminent death was certain. I was formally declared to have left the country. Torture, pain—it felt as if I was buried alive. The physical and psychological pressure crushed me, destroyed me.

They began the interrogations. They forced me to write the September date—the date of my earlier two-day detention—on the interrogation forms. I subsequently discovered that their main objective was not so much to carry out interrogations as to stage-manage “interviews.” They forced me to memorize and “recite” the texts they had prepared in a staged TV interview which they were taping with a video camera. They taped these forced, false, and fabricated interviews in that same prison. The “interviews” included a discussion about other writers; they provided the text, and most of it was lies.

However, the major part of the interviews was devoted to espionage. They made me “confess” that I spied for Manville, the French cultural attaché, and for Gust, the German one, and that I was being paid by them. They made me “confess” that the German government was giving money to my wife in Germany, that Manville and Gust gave me and our journal Adineh ideological instructions. They made up these lies and forced me to speak them. And to make it appear that these “interviews” were genuine, they would write down details about Gust or Manville’s lives, and force me to memorize them and recite them in front of the camera. For example, that Gust is rich, that he has a big house and he loves antiques, and he likes so and so, and doesn’t like so and so…. They beat me into performing this interview credibly. They repeated the interviews several times, and each time they would tell me to plead for forgiveness and clemency. Then they forced me to say that I had had sexual relations with several women. In truth, I had not even met some of these women. Then they forced me to speak about the sexual relations of other writers with each other’s wives.

But the main point was espionage. You might ask why I gave in to such humiliation, why I allowed myself to give in to their demands. I don’t want to justify my actions, but after each interview I felt a little closer to death. The physical and psychological pressure was overwhelming. I was shattered and I wanted them to finish up what they were doing quickly and kill me so that I would be relieved from the constant torture and madness. On many occasions, I wrote letters to them on the interrogation papers, begging them to kill me or to give me something so that I could take my own life.

In between the utter loneliness, the physical and emotional pain of the continuing interrogations, the sense of being on the brink of madness and despair, there were moments when I could think. I began to make sense of what their goals were.

The complicated plan which is still being implemented has several goals. The first goal is to stand up to the Germans regarding the Mykonos affair. The second goal is to provide propaganda to counter the negative implications of the Mykonos affair at home. The third goal is to discredit and vilify intellectuals, myself included, in the eyes of the public. And then there is the goal of frightening the intellectu-als into silence. In short, to trap the Germans, to provide propaganda to counter the effects of the Mykonos assassination, to discredit intellectuals inside Iran, to frighten writers, to destroy me physically and morally—all of these were their goals. Through my forced “interviews,” they could attain the second, third, and fourth goals, but the first goal—implicating the Germans and forcing concessions out of them—has still eluded them. They are still in pursuit of that goal.

I spent eight years in the Shah’s prisons. I was arrested and imprisoned several times during his reign. But all of those eight years together could not compare in pain and distress with a mere five minutes during these forty-seven days.

Their main problem was now to get the German government to confirm the entry stamp on my passport. To get that confirmation, they had to publicly show that stamp on my passport, so they proceeded to the next stage of the plan.

They told me that they would release me for a while with the condition that I say and do exactly as they say. I accepted. Anything—even death or rearrest, which will undoubtedly occur within a few days—seemed preferable to the situation that I was in. They told me that they planned to let me reappear in Mehrabad airport and have an interview with journalists. I did the interview in Mehrabad airport, and it was published. I also had an interview with the BBC and French radio, tel-ling everyone what I had been ordered to say. On December 20, I was ostensibly freed, but I am under constant surveillance.

They will definitely arrest me again. They will either kill me and mask it as a suicide, or they will force me into other interviews, or other things I cannot even guess about, and then kill me and mask it as suicide. Their main problem for now is to get the Hamburg stamp confirmed. When it is, they will say that Sarkuhi was lying about his family problems. He is really a spy.

I am a broken man. I am absolutely desolate and hopeless. George Orwell’s 1984 seems tame compared to my story. I don’t know what else to write. The end is near.

Should this letter come into anyone’s possession, please make sure that it reaches my wife within three days of my arrest or one day after my death, so that she can get it published. If no one finds this, I will be dead anyway. In reality, I died on December 20.

  1. *

    The translation of the letter has been supplied by the writers’ association PEN. The full text is on PEN’s website (www.PEN.org).

  • Email
  • Print