In Iran, more abuse of unjustly imprisoned journalists

New York, June 7, 2011–Iranian authorities continue to punish unjustly imprisoned journalists when they demand basic rights. They also retaliate when these journalists speak out about their mistreatment and the substandard conditions in prison, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

“Apparently, it is not sufficient for the authorities in Iran to be the world’s leading jailer of journalists,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “Prison, security, and judicial officials regularly harm and punish journalists who demand their rights or shed light on rampant prison abuse. These journalists should not be in prison in the first place but while they are there the authorities have a duty to ensure their safety and well-being.”   

Mehdi Mahmoudian, a freelance journalist and blogger who is serving a five-year prison sentence at the Rajaee Shah prison in Karaj, about an hour west of Tehran, has been suffering from medical complications since late May, multiple reformist news websites have reported. The reformist news website Human Rights House of Iran (RAHANA) published on May 8 a letter from Mahmoudian to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, detailing torture at the prison. The letter also highlighted drug abuse, forced and consensual sex among prison inmates, verbal abuse and other forms of degrading treatment, and coerced confessions there.  The RAHANA report states that the letter was written in September 2010, but was made public only recently.  

The reformist news website Kaleme reported on May 14 that following publication of the letter, prison authorities transferred Mahmoudian to solitary confinement for 10 days and banned him from having visitors for three months. Mahmoudian embarked on a dry hunger strike soon after, along with a handful of other journalists and political prisoners, the reformist news website Rooz Online reported.The journalist’s health has sharply deteriorated during his incarceration: his lungs collapsed and he has developed epilepsy in 2010, CPJ research shows.  

Houshang Mahmoudian, Mehdi’s father, told Rooz Online that during his hunger strike, his son’s condition had deteriorated so much that he “didn’t recognize him. He has lost so much weight, I couldn’t recognize my son.  I was waiting for him to come; and only when he waved at me did I realize that this is my son who has come to look like this.” Mahmoudian and the two other journalists, Issa Saharkhiz and Kayvan Samimi, ended their hunger strike on Monday after a number of clerics called for them to do so, news websites reported.   

In 2010, Mahmoudian was found guilty of “mutiny against the regime” for his role in documenting complaints of rape and abuse of detainees at the now-defunct Kahrizak Detention Center in 2009. Mahmoudian is one of many journalists who have been transferred to Rajaee Shah prison, infamous for housing many violent criminals who abuse drugs and spread communicable diseases, CPJ research shows.   

In another retaliatory move in Iranian prisons, on Thursday, guards repeatedly bashed the head of imprisoned journalist Massoud Bastani into a wall, Kaleme reported. Bastani worked for the reformist newspaper Farhikhteganand the reformist news website Jomhoriyat until his arrest in July 2009.The assault took place when Bastani’s visit with his family members went a minute longer than the allotted time, according to the same report. On the same day, a tearful Massoumeh Maloul, the journalist’s mother, told the U.S.-funded Radio Farda that “Massoud told the prison guard to allow him to say goodbye for a few more minutes. He slightly pushed the soldier aside with his hand when the soldier grabbed him by the collar and kept hitting his head against the wall.”

In the same interview, Bastani’s mother recounted how the journalist, in a brief visit after the assault, told her that he thought that he had a concussion. Journalist Mahsa Amrabadi, Bastani’s wife who was imprisoned in 2009 herself, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran on Sunday that her husband called home and told her that he had been sent to a hospital in Karaj for a CT scan, X-rays, and other medical tests. She added that Bastani told her that he felt weak and disoriented.  

Bastani, also being held at the Rajaee Shah prison in Karaj, is serving a six-year prison sentence for “propagating against the regime and congregating and mutinying to create anarchy.” He was arrested in July 2009 when he went to a Tehran court seeking information about his wife. Amrabadi, arrested with two other journalists in June 2009, was released the in August.  

And in a third instance of intimidation, Mohammad Davari, editor-in-chief ofthe reformist news website Saham News who is serving five years in prison on charges of “propagating against the regime,” and “disrupting national security,” was summoned to the Evin Prison Court in late April, Kaleme reported.  Davari was interrogated about published statements and open letters that he signed. Prison and intelligence officials asked him to publicly deny having signed the statements attributed to him or face a new criminal case and trial, according to Kaleme.

Davari has signed a significant number of statements and open letters for political prisoners over the past year, CPJ research shows. Prisoners inside Ward 350 including Davari believe that judicial and intelligence authorities use summonses, threats, and new interrogations to create more limitations and deprivations and ultimately longer prison time for political prisoners.

In November 2010, CPJ honored Davari with its International Press Freedom Award.