Monireh Baradaran is a former member of the leftist organization Worker’s Way. Agents of the Shah’s regime arrested her shortly before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and then released her along with other political prisoners in the autumn of 1978. Islamic Republic authorities re-arrested her, and she spent nine years, from 1981 to 1990, in Evin Prison. While in prison, Baradaran was subjected to mental and physical torture, including the so-called “coffin” tactic, during which prisoners were contained by plywood on three sides, blindfolded and forced to listen to sermons, confessions and prayers blared over loudspeakers at high volume.
Baradaran grew up in a politically conscious family. She was in high school when, in 1971, her brother was imprisoned for opposing the Shah’s regime. She went on to study sociology at university, but never forgot about politics. When she attempted to smuggle some reading material to her brother in prison, she too was arrested.
At that time, the International Red Cross inspected Iranian prisons and, according Baradaran, there was no torture. On the contrary, she felt a certain kind of “joy” in prison. “At Evin’s communal ward there was a good ambience,” she says. “We sang songs, read books and did a lot of things. It was more like a boarding house than prison.” She said “there was no comparison” to what she experienced in the 1980s under the Islamic Republic.
Baradaran became active with the Worker’s Way in late 1979. In September 1981, she was arrested. Her nine years in prison inspired her to write, and after leaving Iran she wrote books about her experience. In her memoirs, she writes about the two weeks during which she was subjected to the “coffin” torture that could have very possibly damaged her psychological state beyond repair.
After her arrest, Baradaran was taken to the Eshrat Abad detention center, once a 19th century royal palace, then an army garrison, and later, under the Revolutionary Guards, turned into the infamous “Prison 59”. When she was taken to the center, she was blindfolded so she would not know where she was. For a few days she was kept in a building that looked like an old bathhouse along with some other detained women. She was then transferred to solitary confinement. She was not tortured there. The hell started when she was transferred to Evin.
At Evin, prisoners were kept for days and perhaps months in the corridors connecting interrogation and torture rooms. Prisoners witnessed the torture of other prisoners by peeking from under their blindfolds or just through listening to their cries. This continued until the interrogations came to an end. “Interrogations and torture started after five days,” Baradaran said. “Whipping was a torture that was used on everybody. And then there was cross-shackle. They would tie one hand from over the shoulder to the other hand in the back. They pushed hard on your wrists so that they could tie them together. It is a torture that completely confuses your system and you don’t know where it hurts. Pain ricochets throughout your body. They kept you like that until they laid you down again and started whipping you without taking off the shackle.”
Torture Without End
But, said Baradaran, the end of interrogation did not mean an end to torture. It continued throughout the incarceration. “Torture continued if you did not obey any order or rule. Examples included praying and participating in programs set up by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Disobeying these rules brought about the worst physical and psychological tortures.” Then, in 1983, they started the “coffin torture,” also known as the “box”, “grave” or “device” torture.
The invention of the coffin torture is attributed to Davoud Rahmani, the head of Ghezel Hesar Prison in Karaj from 1981 to 1984. According to the campaign group Justice for Iran, the tactic involved the prisoner sitting "continuously and without contact with other prisoners while harnessed on three sides by sheets of plywood (length of 2 meters and width of 80 centimeters) and wearing a blindfold, remaining in absolute silence — even while eating no sound was to be emitted from hitting the silverware to the plates.”
The report said the length of this type of torture was dependent on the resistance levels of the prisoner. “It would end when the prisoner would stop resisting and announce willingness to express his disgust toward his group or friends. The stronger-willed prisoners were subject to this torture method for so long that many of them lost their mental balance and health forever. Throughout the entirety of the torture, loudspeakers broadcast religious sermons, calls to prayer, and Koran recitation and later on, interviews with people who had given in.”
Monireh had to live in a “coffin” for two weeks. “There were those who had to spend nine month in these boxes,” she said. “Many went mad. I don’t what would have happened to me if I had stayed in the box longer. Many prisoners could not resist and broke.”
But, more than anything, what Baradaran remembers most is the torture she received during interrogations, and the intense feelings of humiliation and helplessness that resulted. “Total humiliation’’ she said, “is when you find out that your body and your mind is under the absolute control of the torturer and he can do with you as he wishes. You feel completely helpless. It needs an enormous amount of power to resist.”
According to Baradaran, resisting the torture means refusing to confess to what the torturer wants. But resistance can also boost the morale of the prisoner. “You feel proud when the torture is finished and you have not broken. But those who broke probably had many more difficult years ahead. The first thing that is harmed is your self-confidence.”
It was the resistance that Baradaran believes gave her the self-confidence to write. “There are very few who broke under the torture and were able to write their stories.”
A Decade Covered with Soot and Dust
Baradaran believes that torture terrorizes not only individuals but the whole society. In their memoirs, the prisoners of the 1980s have written repeatedly that this was a dark decade, as though the whole society was covered by a layer of soot and dust. One can find this image in the works of the poet and writer Houshang Golshiri or in Mahmoud Dolatabadi’s novel The Colonel. “Torture does not have to be experienced firsthand,” says Baradaran. “The society witnesses and experiences it. In the 1980s when they brought in prisoners with black-and-blue eyes and swelling faces in front of the TV cameras to confess, the aim was to terrorize society. Everybody knows that TV confessions are lies but the real aim of governments in doing these things is to intimidate the society.”
But the prisoner experiences torture at every moment with his whole body — and can break at any time. “Under torture is not the time to think about your ideals,” said Baradaran. “You only know that you must take it and you must not give out information.”
Like most other people, she had been afraid of torture when, as a teenager, she was getting to know politics through reading books. But suddenly she found herself in a hell that she could not have imagined before. But there were younger prisoners who also resisted torture. “Step by step you learn how to treat yourself and the torturer,” she says. “I screamed when they were whipping me but some others thought that they were resisting better by staying silent.”
The torture methods that have had a lasting effect on Baradaran include the cross-shackling and being flogged while she was shackled. Once, her torturers covered her with a blanket, sat on her and covered her mouth with their hands when she fainted. When she regained consciousness she found that the blanket had been pushed aside. When her torture started she had been wearing a chador and a headscarf. But her involuntary spasms under torture had thrown off the blanket, the chador and the scarf. “Cover yourself, you hussy!” was the first sentence she heard on regaining consciousness. “I didn’t know who I was and where I was,” she remembers. “I tried to feel my senseless shackled hands. The torturer knew that my hands were tied and I could not cover myself. But what he was really saying was ‘you are my enemy and I am torturing you because you are my political opponent and I am humiliating you.’”
Baradaran told IranWire that many female prisoners were scared of sexual assault, even those who had to suffer the coffin torture. “My friend told me that once during interrogations the torturer pushed his stick towards her vagina. She screamed involuntarily and he stopped.”
But, undoubtedly, female prisoners suffered double discrimination because of their gender. They were afraid of sexual assault and they had menstruation to worry about. “During periods they usually did not want you to give them information except in special cases,” said Baradaran. “They would not torture you during periods. But they did not believe that you were having a period [if you told them you were]. To convince them that you were having one you had to give them a used sanitary napkin. Then they would give you another.”
Torture Can Create a New Person
Baradaran believes that the Islamic Republic uses torture to turn prisoners into different people. They used this effectively in the 1980s during the so-called “penitent-making” process: To save him or herself from incessant torture or the threat of execution, a prisoner had to repent, “accept Islam” and prove it by a variety of means, from spying in prison to participating in the execution of other prisoners. “Many were afraid of prison because they feared that they would become another person,” Baradaran said. “Perhaps if they had kept me in the coffin for more than two weeks my voice would have been extinguished, too. Either I would be confined to a hospital or I would have become silent and would have lost my voice.”
People never forget torture, she says, and if they try to write or talk about it, memories come rushing back. This is not easy to take.
For her, torture is one of the worst ways to intimidate society, and although it can be successful at times, it delegitimizes the entire system that brought about these tactics. “In terrorism cases, even if the torturer extracts some [valid] information, much more important things are trampled on — human rights. When human rights are trampled underfoot, then the distinction between terrorist and non-conformist and dissident vanishes. What is more, the prisoner is apt to give wrong information to get out of the situation in which he finds himself. No matter what the excuse, torture destroys things that cannot be replaced.”
Monireh Baradaran has written extensively about her own experience, her observations in prison and human rights in general. She started writing six months after arriving in Germany. Her memoirs, A Simple Truth, was published in German and has been translated into Dutch and Danish.
In 1999, the International League for Human Rights awarded Baradaran and the Iranian poet Simin Behbahani the Carl von Ossietzky Medal, which honors “citizens or initiatives that promote basic human rights.”