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Opinions

Ahmadreza’s Hell in Iranian Dungeons

January 11, 2024
Susanne Berger
16 min read
Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali before his illegal imprisonment in Iran; and in 2018, after two years in Tehran’s Evin prison. Source: Vida Mehrannia
Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali before his illegal imprisonment in Iran; and in 2018, after two years in Tehran’s Evin prison. Source: Vida Mehrannia
Ahmadreza’s Hell in Iranian Dungeons
Hacked CCTV footage of Evin prison shows overcrowded cells and abuse of inmates by prison guards. The released video does not include footage of the wards controlled by the intelligence services where many political prisoners are held. Source: Edalat-e Ali
Hacked CCTV footage of Evin prison shows overcrowded cells and abuse of inmates by prison guards. The released video does not include footage of the wards controlled by the intelligence services where many political prisoners are held. Source: Edalat-e Ali

On December 19, Dr. Ahmadreza Djajali, an Iranian born Swedish citizen, phoned his wife Vida from Tehran’s infamous Evin prison. He had just received a visit from an Iranian security official informing him of his imminent execution. The same message was delivered in a video aired repeatedly on Iranian State Television that Djalali was able to watch from his prison ward.

The five and a half minute long, professionally produced clip  accused Djalali of being a spy and blamed him for the arrest and trial of Hamid Noury, a former Iranian official who last year received a life sentence in Sweden for the murder of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.

The video features prison interviews with Djalali filmed under severe duress following his arrest almost eight years ago, in April 2016. A medical doctor and respected scholar of disaster medicine, Djalali was detained after attending a medical conference at the invitation of the University of Tehran and Shiraz University.

In 2017, he was sentenced to death following a sham trial, on charges of “corruption on Earth” and espionage for a foreign power, specifically Israel. Dr. Djalali has categorically denied all charges against him. In fact, his arrest may have been an act of retaliation by Iranian intelligence and security officials who a few months before his 2016 trip approached him with a request to report on certain technical matters connected with Sweden. “I am a scientist, not a spy,” Djalali told them.

There is no question about what prompted Iran’s latest threat of Dajlali’s immediate execution: On the same day (December 19), a Swedish court had confirmed Hamid Noury’s life sentence. The Iranian authorities are trying to obtain Noury’s release, most likely in a prisoner exchange that would include Djalali and Swedish EU diplomat Johan Floderus, who was arrested in April 2022 during a private visit to Iran. The graphic video was undoubtedly intended to enhance public pressure on the Swedish government to agree to such a deal.

In a similar move designed to attract major international media attention, the trial against Floderus commenced in early December, during the week Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi was to be awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize.

Floderus, too, has been charged with espionage. If convicted, he also faces the death penalty. Like Djalali, Floderus is enduring prison conditions amounting to torture. He has been only allowed to phone his family in Sweden after repeated hunger strikes and has virtually no access to fresh air or sunlight. After his arrest he was held in isolation for 300 days, with no mattress and 24-hour artificial lighting in his cell.

Sweden’s Limited Options

According to legal experts in Sweden, the Swedish government’s options are limited. They can pardon the 62-year-old Noury – a legally problematic and distasteful move given the severity of his crimes. Or they can approve his release with the understanding that he would serve the remainder of his sentence in Iranian custody.

This is what Belgium did last year when it concluded a highly controversial treaty with Iran allowing Iranians convicted of crimes committed in Belgium to serve their sentence in Iran. If Sweden were to enter into a similar treaty and arrange a prisoner swap, it would essentially lead to Noury’s release, since there is virtually no chance that he would be imprisoned in his home country where he enjoys a hero-like status among the members of the regime.

However, the Belgian government found another way to craft a prisoner swap in May last year that freed Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgian humanitarian aid worker who had been sentenced in early 2023 to 40 years imprisonment, plus three other European citizens (two Austrians and a Dane), in exchange for Iranian diplomat Asadollah Assadi. Assadi was convicted on terrorism charges in Belgium in 2021.

The Belgian government claims that the swap was arranged by invoking an article contained in Belgium’s constitution which grants the government sole power over foreign policy issues. Sweden’s constitution gives its government similar powers, potentially opening additional paths for discussions. The Swedish government has repeatedly asked for Djalali’s release on humanitarian grounds, due to his ill-health.

A Hell on Earth - Tehran’s Evin Prison

Throughout his imprisonment, Djalali has been held repeatedly in partial or complete isolation, for periods of up to five months each. During the first seven months of his incarceration in Section 209 of Evin prison (run by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security) he was permitted only one two-minute phone call with his family every two weeks. He has only had limited access to his Iranian lawyer, with the authorities rejecting his earlier two choices without explanation.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in December 2017 that Djalali’s weight initially dropped 24 kilos as a result of several hunger strikes launched in protest of his illegal arrest and detention. “The first three such protests lasted a week each, while the fourth started on 26 December 2016 and lasted for 49 days, until 12 February 2017. Mr. Djalali began his fifth hunger strike on 15 February 2017, when he was informed that his chosen lawyer was not allowed to represent him,” the Working Group wrote.

Former prisoners  have described the harrowing conditions in Evin prison, where detainees are forced to contend with unsanitary conditions, poor ventilation, extreme summer heat, bed bugs, rotten food, cockroaches and rats. Photos and videos released in 2021 by the Iranian hacktivist group Edalat-e Ali (“Ali’s Justice”) which hacked the prison’s CCTV cameras show up to 20 prisoners squeezing in a single room, with many forced to sleep on the floor. The group also released footage of prison guards brutally beating inmates and dragging a seemingly unconscious and emaciated prisoner along the floor.

“The Silence Is Like an Endless Scream”

Solitary confinement, the Iranian authorities’ infamous “white torture,” is the subject of a book and recent documentary film produced by Narges Mohammadi who herself remains currently imprisoned. Her exposé of the effects of solitary confinement and the brutal conditions in Evin prison, including beatings, insults, sexual abuse, physical threats against family members, as well as the lack of proper food and medical care, prompted the latest of her many arrests in December 2021. 

She was briefly freed to undergo life-saving heart surgery but was forced to report to prison again in late 2022. Her sentence for “spreading propaganda with the intention to harm the state” includes time in strict isolation and 80 lashes. She has been repeatedly denied access to medication and follow-up medical treatment.

In her book, Mohammadi describes the cruel and dehumanizing effects of solitary confinement.

“When the door slams, you are terrified. Four times in solitary...my cell just four paces wide. Artificial light 24 hours a day. No book, nothing. The silence, she writes, “is like an endless scream, paralyzing my brain cells.”

“You are stripped of all your senses in solitary,” says Iranian journalist Sasan Arayi, whom Mohammadi interviewed for her documentary. Arayi has spent a total of 288 days in complete isolation. “You lose your ability to perceive things. You are in a void, your organs are working, you are alive in an endless grave…that nothingness is really like experiencing death.”

Mock execution is another form of torture used by the Iranian authorities to exert maximum pressure on prisoners and their governments. For Djalali, the December 19 announcement marked the third time his jailors had told him he should prepare for his death. Once the execution appeared to be so near that Djalali said a wrenching good-bye to his wife and  children by phone. The execution was stopped without explanation, but the fear remained and is ever present.

Under the Constant Threat of Imminent Death

The psychological pressure of living for so long under the threat of imminent death is simply unbearable, not only for him, but for his family at home. “Ahmadreza and all of us live in constant dread, because we know they can come for him at any moment,” his wife Vida Mehrannia says.

Despite efforts over the years to stay fit through regular exercise that includes walking with weights and climbing the stairs inside his prison ward, Djalali’s physical health is declining rapidly. He is suffering severe intestinal problems, including gastric ulcers, low pulse and blood pressure, circulatory issues, kidney pain and a low white blood count. He also requires urgent dental work. Djalali keeps much of the time for himself, behind homemade curtains he installed for his bunk bed. His family provides financial resources so he can purchase additional food rations in prison (at very high prices).

Nobody understands the anguish Djalali and his family are feeling day in day out better than his fellow  prisoner for seven years, US citizen Siamak Namazi. Last September, Namazi was released after eight years of imprisonment in Iran, thanks to dogged negotiations by US officials, his family and a dedicated team of lawyers – plus a dramatic live interview he gave to veteran journalist Christiane Ampanpour from Evin prison in March 2023.

During a stopover in Doha, Qatar, Namazi made a point of mentioning his close friend: “What I want more than anything is assurance that no one else will know the interminable anguish that my family and I experienced. But sadly, many are suffering those miseries right now. People like Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish physician who has been on death row on trumped-up charges for over seven-and-a-half years now. The only thing keeping him standing is the dream of someday holding his son and daughter, and his wife Vida in his arms again.”

Djalali met Namazi, who was arrested in October 2015 by the intelligence unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in Ward 4 where both were transferred after the initial, most brutal investigative phase of their respective cases was concluded. Ward 4 houses mainly non-violent inmates, with a more restricted area for political prisoners.

They would meet almost daily in the library and spend hours walking in the prison yard, taking turns telling stories, discussing life, anything to keep their minds off their desperate surroundings.

“I was a hostage for eight years, and even though they also threw my old and ailing father in a solitary cell next to me, and despite the fact that two US presidents chose to free other hostages and leave me behind,“ Namazi said, “the immense pain my family and I suffered pales in comparison to the cruelty that Ahmadreza and his family continue to endure. He has experienced the kind of inhumanity that none of us can even imagine, let alone withstand. We must get him home.”

The Cruel Game of International Hostage-Taking

Namazi recently lobbied the White house to use its influence in the United Nations to do more to prevent international hostage-taking. The Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations, sponsored by Canada in 2021, aims to curb the scourge of international hostage diplomacy. Seventy-three countries and the European Union have endorsed the Declaration. However, few countries have invoked the provisions for mutual assistance the agreement provides. Sweden, too, has yet to do so.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has no qualms destroying innocent lives and will continue practicing its wicked hostage diplomacy unless we put in place the kind of draconian repercussions that would make it think twice, “ Namazi emphasized. “Once a hostage is taken, we are left with no good solutions. The only thing that is clear at that point is that leaving a hostage for dead is unconscionable.”

In a separate statement, the family of Robert Levinson, a former US Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI agent who was taken hostage in Iran in 2007 and died in Iranian custody, concurred. The family urged the international community to take a strong international strategy of deterrence. “We must systematically put pressure on these countries [like Iran] through sanctions, seizures, private litigation and by making wrongful detention in state-to-state relations both a U.S. and international crime,” the statement reads.

For Djalali’s family, even after eight years, there is no chance to come to terms with the new reality. Life seemingly goes on, but it really does not. “There is no relief, “ his wife told me recently, “because every waking moment is spent trying to figure out a way to rescue Ahmadreza. He is my  first thought in the morning and the last thought at night. At the same time, you have to live your life and continue to function, in your job and for your children.” Mehrannia, an analytical chemist, works full time. Any free time she devotes to driving the campaign to free her husband.”

In 2016, Vida Mehrannia became a single mother overnight. Their young son, who was only four years old when Djalali was arrested, suffers seeing his friends spending time with their dads on weekends and holidays. Their daughter has gone through the emotional ups and downs of teenage life with constant worry about her father. She is now a fourth-year medical student.

Djalali and Mehrannia met during their university studies and got married in 2000. She says she was drawn to his intellectual curiosity and passion for life. “He was always active, always moving. He loved to travel, explore new places, try different foods, “she remembers. “If he had not pursued a career in medicine, he would have loved to become a mathematician – an interest he shares with daughter, by the way.”

“Ahmadreza is an honorable man who worked hard for his professional opportunities and never took them for granted,” Mehrannia emphasizes when asked what she appreciates most about her husband. “He is a wonderful father and an accomplished scholar in his field. But what makes Ahmadreza special is his generosity and empathy for others. That is why while studying medicine in Iran, he decided to focus on the field of disaster medicine because he wanted to help his country and other people around the world who are affected by natural catastrophes. So, when he secured an opportunity to pursue his PhD at the Karolinska Institute, we were thrilled to begin this new chapter together.”

The Immense Strain Put on Hostage Families

Mehrannia maintains a stoic reserve in media interviews, but the pain and stress are palpable. She is grateful for the life the family has found in Sweden, but she has also felt very much alone. Ahmadreza Djalali’s mother died in 2021, while he was imprisoned.

His three siblings and other relatives continue to reside in Iran. Friends sympathize and are a source of strength and support, Mehrannia explains, but also do not want to be constantly reminded or confronted with personal trauma. “It’s not easy to have fun when one in the group is weighed down by such a heavy burden, for so many years,” Mehrannia adds matter-of-factly.

International human rights organizations like Scholars at Risk and Amnesty International, as well as numerous professional networks such as the International Science Council have mounted strong campaigns on Dr. Djalali’s behalf, and continue to press for his immediate and unconditional release. In 2021, the Free University of Berlin honored Djalali with its Courage to Think Award.

However, at home in Sweden Mehrannia has had difficulties rallying public support. Her husband  received Swedish citizenship only in 2018, two years after his arrest. After Djalali disappeared in April 2016 (he was initially held at an undisclosed location), his wife heard nothing from the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s consular office that handles his case, even though the whole family had official residency permits.

In their public statements, Foreign Minister Tobias Billström and other Swedish officials routinely emphasize that “Sweden’s efforts for Ahmadreza Djalali continue with undiminished strength.” Unfortunately, it is not clear what this means in concrete terms. “The consular officers do not maintain regular contact and I do not receive any briefings,” Mehrannia says. “When I ask for information, they simply tell me that they are ‘following the case closely’, providing no further details.”

She still has not been told what conditions Iran has set for her husband’s release. Djalali’s entire consular file remains completely sealed, something Mehrannia plans to challenge.

The Fear of Being Left Behind

Swedish media, too, have been slow to take up Djalali’s plight. Mehrannia acknowledges the importance of silent diplomacy and confidential discussions, but she feels that the Swedish government should have acted much more decisively, especially in the early phase of Djalali’s detention. She has yet to meet with Sweden’s ambassador to Iran.

This past week, Mehrannia publicly urged the Swedish Foreign Minister to take a stronger position with Iranian officials in Sweden, including summoning the Iranian ambassador to request a full update on Djalali’s condition and permit visitation with Swedish officials. She has also called upon Swedish parliamentarians to send an official delegation to Iran to demand an end to her husband’s unlawful imprisonment.

Just as importantly, Mehrannia wants Sweden’s business community to be more outspoken. She notes that a 2017 official visit to Iran by a large Swedish trade delegation that included top-level representatives from Sweden’s largest industrial and commercial enterprises, such as ABB, AstraZeneca, Ericsson, Nordea, Scania, SEB, Tetra Pak Iran, and Volvo, resulted in a significant increase of commercial ties between the two countries, but failed to bring about any progress in her husband’s case. No Swedish officials contacted her in connection with the trip.

Djalali’s situation is complicated by the fact that Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, making it difficult for the Swedish government to advocate his case. However, it is clear that the Islamic Republic detains hostages as “Iranians” while negotiating their release as Americans, Swedes or Belgians. “This point needs to be emphasized much more forcefully by both Swedish and EU diplomats,” Mehrannia says. Unlike Johan Floderus, Swedish officials have not been able to visit Ahmadreza Djalali in prison.

Both she and her husband are keenly aware that the prospects for his release remain uncertain and are potentially complicated by Floderus’s arrest. There are concerns that Iranian authorities could decide to execute Djalali to increase the pressure on the Swedish government to force Noury’s release. Mehrannia also worries that her husband could be left out of any potential deal to secure Floderus’ return. This is what happened last year, when Djalali was to be part of the Belgian-Iranian prisoner swap negotiated by the Belgian government. Djalali, a former guest lecturer at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), was left behind at the last minute.

Mehrannia is determined to make it clear to the Swedish government and the EU that this cannot happen again. “For almost eight years, Ahmadreza has suffered unspeakable cruelty. He absolutely needs to be rescued now.”

***

Susanne Berger is a Senior Fellow with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR) in Montreal, Canada. She is the founder and coordinator of the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70), an informal association of about 200 historians, journalists, legal experts and family members of victims of repression and people wrongfully detained.

***

For more information on how to support the efforts on behalf of Ahmadreza Djalali and Johan Floderus, please contact:

Amnesty International, Sweden

E-mail [email protected]  [email protected]

Phone +46 (0) 70-4330916 or +46 (0)8-729 02 00

https://www.amnesty.se/aktuellt/iran-ahmadreza-djalali-halls-gisslan-och-riskerar-avrattning-som-hamnd/

https://www.amnesty.se/aktuellt/johan-floderus-maste-omedelbart-friges-fran-iranskt-fangelse/

Amnesty International, U.K.

E-mail [email protected]

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/12/iran-arbitrarily-detained-swedish-iranian-academic-ahmadreza-djalali-at-grave-risk-of-retaliatory-execution/

X (Twitter): @Free_Djalali (Freedom for Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali

@free_JohanF (Free Johan Floderus

Website:

www.freejohanfloderus.org [email protected] [email protected]

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