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Society & Culture

In Prison, The Seed of Empathy is Planted: An Interview With Isa Saharkhiz

November 14, 2013
Reza HaghighatNejad
9 min read
In Prison, The Seed of Empathy is Planted: An Interview With Isa Saharkhiz
In Prison, The Seed of Empathy is Planted: An Interview With Isa Saharkhiz

In Prison, The Seed of Empathy is Planted: An Interview With Isa Saharkhiz

Cooperation and tolerance: two of the most intriguing threads that run through numerous memoirs and narratives by former prisoners of Evin, Rajaishahr and other Iranian prisons in recent years. Many of the walls that divided prisoners -  political, social, and otherwise – came down after the disputed elections of 2009, as the prominent reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh has aptly pointed out. It was an event that is clearly reflected in those stories and memoirs by political prisoners, both prisoners of deed and prisoners of conscience. To get a better understanding of the aftermath of that event, IranWire interviewed Isa Saharkhiz, a prominent activist in the Iranian political media, who was recently released after serving his sentence.

Many released prisoners have spoken about the atmosphere of empathy and tolerance that the prisoners have created within their prison world. Faezeh Hashemi [a political activist, a former prisoner and the daughter of ex-President Hashemi Rafsanjani] has mentioned this in her writing, and you have yourself as well. Can you tell us more about how this atmosphere came about?

It is only logical that when a group of people are put in a situation where they feel a government has done them injustice and has forced them into such a situation, they find common interests and develop common demands and friendly coexistence. Of course there were exceptions, but the rule in the prison was peaceful coexistence. This is especially significant for today’s Iran because we are confronted with a very wide variety and range of prisoners; from religious activists such as Baha’is, Christian converts and Sufis to civil servants accused of spying, people who have taken up arms against the government and individuals who have been politically active for human rights and freedom. All these different people and different ideologies where gathered in a single group but they were confronted by just one perpetrator: the governing tyranny that was responsible for putting them into the prison and trampling their rights. This was the foundation for the coexistence and the tolerance that took shape in the prison.

You mentioned that this empathy and coexistence took shape in a situation where the people involved believed they have been victims of injustice.  Are talking about a forced or temporary coexistence here, something different from a conscious and voluntary choice?

Not so. I talked about the foundations for empathy and coexistence, about the conditions that give rise to such a cooperation. When daily life and common interests bring people closer, the next step is dialogue. And in the course of such dialogue different groups come to realize that many of their differences and rivalries in the wider society are not so important as to prevent them from talking together and working together. They also learn that they must respect and defend each other’s rights no matter what their beliefs, convictions and preferences. In fact they realize that they complement each other, they live next to each other, they eat with each other, they talk about their special interests to each other and then they work with each other; they study with each other in shared classrooms, they become each other’s teacher or student and learn from each other—regardless of their beliefs, religious or ideological.

It seems like you're talking about an evolutionary process. If we compare present prison conditions with the 1980s when the Islamic Republic was trying to convert Marxists and compare camps and divisions within the prisons, we see significant developments, don't we?

That era must be judged on the basis of prior developments. What caused those conditions was the situation before the revolution. It had roots in differences among political forces which manifested themselves in prisons. For example internal arguments within the People’s Mujahedeen Organization around 1975 caused by a factional fight for domination that later made itself felt. These were the factors that created the divisions within prisons, both before and after the revolution. Muslim/Marxist, Islamic/un-Islamic, and even the duality of clean/polluted. I’m sure you have read the memoirs where they recount that if a Marxist hung his wet cloths in the prison to dry, the Muslims would use that location because they considered it unclean, or chose specific locations that they were certain has not been polluted.

In fact it was the divisions within organizations and political figures that showed themselves both in the prisons and in the society as a whole, to the point of an eye for an eye, and blood to avenge blood. No doubt various social and political conflicts around the country intensified the situation. But after the election of 2009 we witnessed a consensus, a transformation towards a common understanding. Instead of “tolerance,” I’d like to say that at that time a culture of cooperation and harmony took shape, a culture of defending each other's right. Of course this was not confined to prisons. Just today (Sunday) that we are talking, I received news that a Baha’i prisoner has been sent to an outside hospital, Salman, and another prisoner who, ideologically speaking, is within the system and does not want to overthrow the regime, has been to visit him. And this is not confined to these two. In such an atmosphere, in the course of events and meetings, members of families get to meet and to see each other and the seed of community is planted.

Such evolution can model tolerance in an important way for society, but I suppose the question is how to convey that or make it happen?

Such a culture is taking shape right now. The prisoners’ families are an example of this. In the space of media, when the press is struggling with censorship issues, and in the space of virtual media, we are witnessing a surge of activity in support of prisoners and their families. In such an environment, aside from political and ideological boundaries, the divisions are dissolving. We are witnessing the growth of a common culture that defends prisoners’ rights. No doubt the governing establishment is not happy with this, but I am confident that this culture will only grow. We will witness that this seed which we have planted will grow to a mighty tree and society follow the lead.

Can’t we pursue these efforts in an organized form? For example, we have a Foundation For Pre-Revolutionary Political Prisoners. Isn't it better for the prisoners after the 2009 elections to create similar institutions to tackle the issues with more strength and more systematically?

Such a thing would need a more hospitable environment. We must have appropriate tools and an appropriate environment. In a situation where the freedom of the press is curtailed and even established parties are marginalized, they say you must form a new party but under conditions. Naturally, organizing such group interests with such goals would trigger many negative reactions. I hope that Mr. Rouhani’s administration would push the environment to where such institutions become possible, although I believe that these kind of institutions are already taking shape unofficially.

Are there signs that the new administration is moving in that direction?

Again we are witnessing the formation of a dual government. For example, Mr. Jannati [Minister of Culture & Islamic Guidance] talks about solving the problem of newspapers such as Neshat or Ham-mihan, or the fact that he has voted “no” to the shutting down of the newspaper Bahar. This is cause for hope. But the reality is that there are parallel currents that do what they want. For example in the universities, we saw some positive movement from the new management but noticed that opposite forces have taken actions to neutralize those moves. Of course, their activities are not confined to culture and education. They are active in foreign policy as well.

You raise some interesting points. For example on the controversy over the execution of Kurdish prisoners, Mr. Younesi [the Minister of Information] has said that he opposed the order and that the hardliners were behind it. Even an ordinary citizen knows this and can say the same thing. We all know these hardliners and we know that they are active. But what has the government done about it? The government is not a citizen or a journalist to merely voice an opinion, it must carry out its responsibilities.

My point was that we can see a will, a positive view, in the government for changing course. But in areas where things have gotten worse, the government has no control and the hardliners are trying to turn the situation to their own advantage. Of course it is right to say that there is a difference between the government, me as a journalist, a lawyer or a citizen and the government must react responsibly to such issues. It is true that the certain institution such as judiciary work outside the control of the government and aggravate the pressures and the issues, but the government must carry out its own responsibilities. About the situation of political prisoners, I say that Mr. Rouhani should not be ashamed to clearly state that he is working to change the situation. He should not talk from both sides of his mouth. I believe that, if necessary, he should go and visit some prisoners as well. The Ministry of Guidance should behave like its reformist predecessor which issued crystal clear statements to defends the rights of the press. In fact, these are the same as Mr. Rouhani’s campaign slogans and must be implemented officially and responsibly.

As a person who served time in the prison and was recently released, you are very familiar with the prisoners’ situation and the problems their families face. In regards to the situation of prisoners, how do you rate the first 100 days of Mr. Rouhani’s administration? Has the situation improved?

Of course my release had nothing to the debut of Rouhani’s administration and even without this administration I would have been released. Some of those released had served their time and some were granted a break for medical reasons. Such things were done even before the present administration. But in recent weeks, the hardliner core of the government has intensified the pressure to show that nothing has changed. They think that if prisoners conditions improve, if prisoners are released, or if the house arrests of Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi and Mrs. Rahnavard are lifted, they would be in a more difficult situation and, as a result, try to forestall such moves. Perhaps if Rouhani had not won, they would not become so seriously engaged and the house arrests would have been lifted sooner.

Again, you moved the ball to the court of the judiciary and the hardline core. When the administration appoints somebody like Mostafa Pourmohammadi to oversee the issue, is there any hope for the right outcome?

I don’t think the government has charged Mr. Pourmohammadi to take care of the house arrests.

I meant an opening to solve the issue of political prisoners.

No. Mr. Pourmohammadi has not had any active involvement in the issue, nor has visited the prisons, nor  can do such things considering his track record. Rouhani’s government must not allow the expressed views of such individuals to be taken as the government’s words. When this person states such things, the government spokesman or Mr. Rouhani himself must come forward and prevent those words from becoming representative of the government. If this goes on we will be witnesses to an incorrect policy from a government whose slogan is the right policy. This government must raise hopes and promote this hope across the society.


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