Columnist Nejat Bahrami, now in exile in Turkey, spoke to CPJ about his time in Iran's Evin prison. (Photo: Bahrami family)

Iranian journalists remain vulnerable in exile, says formerly imprisoned columnist Nejat Bahrami

By CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program

The revelation of a plot by Iranian intelligence agents to kidnap and extradite Brooklyn-based Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad shocked the world last month.

Another Iranian journalist, Nejat Bahrami, experienced the nightmare of life in Iranian custody that Alinejad appears to have escaped. Last year he served five months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison following an anti-state conviction for his commentary critical of Iran’s political establishment, he told CPJ via phone. He later fled Iran for Turkey.

Bahrami, a freelance columnist who wrote on political, economic, and cultural affairs for publications including the Iran Daily and Etemad newspapers, and the weekly Tejarat e Farda and Seda magazines, as well as on his Telegram channel, was arrested on December 5, 2018, and detained for a week in solitary confinement before he was released on bail.

Though he was convicted in 2019, he did not begin his one-year sentence until May 2020. In September, he was placed on medical leave for a week because of his heart disease and high blood pressure, he told CPJ, and when he returned to prison he contracted COVID-19 in October. After that, he said he was placed on medical leave again, and in January he learned that his sentence was commuted by Iran’s government along with thousands of other low-level prisoners.

In a rare phone interview–few Iranian exiled journalists released from prison are willing to go on the record for fear of retaliation–Bahrami spoke with CPJ about his arrest, fighting COVID-19 in prison, and the vulnerabilities journalists face even after they flee Iran.

CPJ usually contacts the judiciary of Tehran province via its website, but it did not load and CPJ was unable to locate alternative contact information. CPJ emailed Iran’s State Prison and Security and Corrective Measures Organization, which manages and supervises Iran’s prisons, but did not receive a response. 

What evidence did the judge and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) agents use to convict you?

My tweets and my Facebook posts plus my interviews with the exile-based Farsi language TV channels such as BBC Persian service and the Persian service of Radio France [Internationale] were used as examples of my crimes. The preliminary IRGC appointed judge whose family name was Nasiripour at the Branch 2 of Revolutionary court of Tehran inside Evin prison accused me of depicting the situation of the country in my writings as “black.” This is a term they accuse you of every time you tell the truth which contradicts their version of reality. According to IRGC, I advertised liberalism and criticized compulsory hijab wearing for women in my writings and those are both crimes.

After you were arrested, but before your trial, you were held in solitary confinement. What was that like?

My psychological and emotional situation was very bad during the week that I was in the IRGC-run ward 2A of Evin in solitary confinement. I tried to hold myself together during the raid on my apartment where my family was present. But I broke after I was taken to solitary. I was kept blindfolded the entire time even during interrogations. I was taken to long exhausting interrogation sessions. Interrogators treated me very badly. They insulted me a lot and constantly cursed me. They kept threatening me in these sessions that no one is aware of my fate and my whereabouts and no one cares about me anymore and my only option is to cooperate with them.

What were the conditions during the five months you spent in Evin prison after your conviction?

I was in a bigger cell with several other political prisoners including financial crime prisoners, who usually receive better treatment. The general condition in Evin prison is way below international standards. Cells don’t get cleaned up on a regular basis unless prisoners do it themselves. The food is very low quality and almost inedible. There is no health supervision and medical assistance or care, even for a prisoner like me who needs regular blood pressure and heart monitoring. It is hard to maintain personal hygiene there. The only medical help offered is sleeping pills. Many prisoners are addicted to these medications. No newspapers are allowed and no books of your choice. And obviously, the threat of COVID-19 is now everywhere. But still in comparison to solitary under IRGC’s watch, it was night and day.

Did you have a lawyer?

I was not permitted to hire a lawyer during the preliminary stage of arrest and what they call the investigation phase, which basically was the interrogations and the period of solitary confinement. After that, IRGC let me hire a lawyer but they didn’t let him access my file case to review it and learn about my charges. He was threatened multiple times and had zero freedom to defend me. He couldn’t even attend my trial to do his job. On paper yes, I had a lawyer, but technically I stood trial alone.

You contracted COVID-19 in prison. What happened?

A few days before I got sick with COVID-19 in October 2020, several other prisoners including a couple of people in my cell were very sick and were showing cold and flu symptoms. We tried explaining to the prison authorities these symptoms can be signs of COVID but they didn’t care. They didn’t quarantine the ill or provide them with any medication. I started coughing and had a high fever but still they didn’t care. One evening, I passed out in one of the corridors. The shift officer informed his boss and they took me to a IRGC approved hospital while my hands were handcuffed and my feet were shackled. I have to add, they only agreed to take me to the hospital because my wife publicized my sickness in the media through some of my old colleagues. In the hospital, they only kept me for a couple of hours and tested me, which came back positive, and then they immediately sent me back to prison. After that, I was left alone in a cold cell, for several days without any medical care, no vitamins, no warm water, no thermometer to check my fever. I almost died of coughing and high fever. I couldn’t even take a single step. But I eventually survived. Those were the worst, darkest days of my life. Only god knows how many didn’t survive.

What was it like for your family during this time? Did they face any threats?

My wife had to make the hard decision of moving away from Tehran to cope with all the social pressure. She also bore financial pressure due to my arrest and not having an income anymore. It was very hard for my children as well. But my wife is the one who tolerated all kinds of threats. She was summoned to court and prison on a regular basis [and threatened with legal action] if she did not stay silent which she never agreed to. It is scary because if she got arrested who would take care of our kids?   

Let’s talk about your decision to go into exile in Turkey. Why did you do that and what is your life like now?

First, they could easily come after me and arrest me again any time. Second, they continued to threaten me and employed scare tactics to try get me to work as a mole and report back to them about my other journalist colleagues. And third, I didn’t have the opportunity to write, to continue my journalism, or even to have a presence on social media such as Twitter [due to the terms of the sentence]. It was sheer suffocation.

But life in exile is also filled with fears and concerns, and it is not very clear that I can independently continue my work. Also, recent incidents have shown that Iran’s neighboring countries are not safe havens for Iranian journalists.

Hearing news about how Iranian authorities are going beyond the country’s borders to kidnap journalists and force them back into its borders shows how vulnerable we are — with no immunity and impunity for the offenders. It also shows what the regime can do to local journalists who don’t even have support from any international governments, media, or rights organizations. It makes you stop, doubt, and think twice about whether the work you are doing is worth continuing and risking your life and your loved ones. It’s very scary.