Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch, looks back on a mixed year.
Amnesty International has said that human rights violations in Iran are as bad as at any point in the last 20 years.
In a report released this week, the group examined allegations of torture, rape, death threats, forced confessions, intimidation, cover-ups and unlawful killings in the period after the country’s disputed presidential election in June.
Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught interviewed Ebrahim Mehtari, an Iranian pro-democracy campaigner, who says he was held for two weeks in a detention centre run by the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence section in East Tehran.
He says he was beaten, tortured, and sexually violated.
He is now living in Turkey under the protection of the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Al Jazeera: Why did you leave Iran?
|Ebrahim Mekhtari says he left Iran after realising his life was in danger|
Ebrahim Mehtari: Fear. I was scared. My friends stayed on and are fighting for a better world.
Perhaps, I don’t have their strength. After what happened to me, I knew my life was in danger and I sensed more danger coming, but I still tried to stay inside Iran, waiting for the situation to calm down.
Then I came to realise it wouldn’t calm down and that the authorities were going to even more extreme lengths to crack down [on the protests]. So I left. It was very difficult.
I feel like a plant which has been uprooted, replanted in supposedly better soil, but still pining for the soil it loves and belongs to.
Why come to Turkey?
Turkey is among the few countries that Iranians can enter without any visas, and stay for three months. Since the Shah’s era, most Iranian political activists, social activists or anybody who found life in Iran difficult, left for Turkey.
You can feel safe there for three months while you decide whether to apply [for refugee status] with the UNHCR, return home, or leave Turkey for another country.
You have said that you do not feel entirely safe in Turkey. Why not?
|The government used riot police to crack down on protests in June [EPA]|
The same way that I – someone who has been hurt – can easily come here, so, too can those who hurt me.
The violator does not need to carry a gun.
All it takes is one sentence from somebody on the street, in your mother tongue, verbally threatening you, and you don’t feel safe any longer. The peace you have been looking for disappears.
This does not have anything to do with the Turkish government or the security situation here. When Iranians pass each other in the street, they can easily spot other Iranians.
I was crossing a busy street. Somebody tapped on my shoulder and said my name. I turned around and looked at him. I thought he might be a friend. But there was no warmth in his face. He told me: “Stop speaking out”.
He was trying to threaten me:” Don’t keep talking about these things, or else it will be easy for us to deal with you”.
I immediately informed the police about it. The Turkish police try their best, but they can’t hire bodyguards for us.
There are large numbers of Iranians who entered Turkey following the June election.
Furthermore, people from all sides, government and opposition, live all over the world. I have spoken to many friends in Germany and the US and they say that they have witnessed the same kind of treatment; it is not restricted to Turkey.
Why does the ruling system in Iran think it is worthwhile chasing people half way around the world?
The enemy-paranoia which is gripping the ruling system has got to the point where they will do whatever they can to intimidate the opposition. It tries its best to turn the whole world into an insecure place for its own people, for its own nation.
Whenever it feels that its people are moving beyond their ‘limits’, whether inside or outside the country, it puts the pressure on, in order to convince them that they’re making a mistake and had better watch out.
I profoundly believe, however, that this is a sign of weakness … of a state which cannot turn its enemies into friends. Not only that, but it turns its friends like me into, if not enemies, then into the opposition.
You say you were injured quite severely in jail and have had to have surgery in Turkey. What happened in that jail cell?
I don’t have the mental strength to describe to you what they did to me, but the reality is this: For a long time Iran’s rulers have spoken a great deal about morality – and to be fair, part of this ruling system was genuinely moral – but today my country is infected by a disease of lying and immorality, and this sickness is spreading throughout the state.
The people shouting in the streets whose blood is spilled, who are tortured and raped in the prisons or killed, or suffer other hardships at the hands of the system – everything they endure is the result of a disease called “the lie”, and the loss of morality.
And at the same time, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad can – blatantly – sit on that chair, stand on that platform at the UN and announce that “I am coming from a country where people are very hospitable”.
When those men can sit in front of cameras and stand on platforms and say: “We are all moralists, we are the sacred Islamic Republic system …” perhaps they should delete the word “sacred”.
He and his cabinet spread nothing but superstition, lies, insults and immorality.
But the Iranian government has denied that rape is used in its jails.
|Iranian leaders have strongly denied that rape occurred in jails and detention centres [AFP]|
They should stop lying to themselves, and to the rest of the world. Some people in the ruling system have admitted they don’t know what is happening inside their jails, and perhaps they are speaking the truth about that.
Perhaps, they genuinely didn’t know what was happening inside Kahrizak [a notorious detention centre in Tehran closed in July after three murders were reported there] and there are hidden hands inside the system trying to block the visibility of these issues.
But the reality is that even those who claim that they do not know what is occurring in the jails are only deceiving themselves. Many illegal prisons exist inside Iran where, once the prisoner is incarcerated, his jailers believe they own him.
They tear you apart because they have lost their humanity and see you just as an animal would. For them, the end justifies the means.
For a long time they have been dividing people into two groups: Either ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’; and ‘outsiders’ have no rights. Inside Iran’s prisons, anything can easily happen.
What is happening in Iran right now?
My country is like a dormant volcano that has been heating up for a long time. My country is growing and developing. The Iranian people who are calling for a return to constitutional law and democracy, are merely trying to grow and develop, too.
Iran is a big country and its people are very decent. But unfortunately the country has been ruled by inadequate men who have abused their people’s hearts. People today are trying to choose leaders with the same stature as themselves. The people who have taken to the streets have endured batons, torture and prison.
This shows that they’re ready to pay the price to achieve a greater goal: Freedom for their country – not freedom for oppressive regimes.
For me, it’s been a long time since you could genuinely find either the concept of a republic, or of Islam in Iran. Perhaps those people protesting in the streets are doing so because of these two missing concepts, or at least one of them…
According to Article 27 of the Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic of Iran, all gatherings are permitted if you are unarmed and do not disturb the public order.
My friends in the streets … and those in prison – what crimes have they committed? These are our crimes: First: We participated in a presidential election and tried our best to uproot the lie in Iran. The second big crime was that we took to the streets asking for our rights, and the third crime was that we didn’t keep silent about Ahmedinejad’s lies.
A journalist friend of mine tells this joke: We have freedom of speech in Iran, but we don’t have post-speech freedom! We can speak one sentence freely, but after that, no-one can protect us.
If you could face your torturers again, what would you say to them?
It’s a difficult question, but I feel they are more tortured than me. Now when I look back on it, I feel those men deserve pity. And need help. Because these guys – knowingly or unknowingly – have become part of a system which has turned them into machines of torture and death.
If you had asked this question immediately after my release, or after the things which they did to me, I might have talked about killing them, but today – look, I don’t want to pretend to be all intellectual about it – my impression is that dictators are miserable people.
And dictatorship is a disaster. I don’t wish the deaths of dictators, but I wish for the death of dictatorship.