The Father Was Arrested For His Innovative Religious Views, the Son Was Coerced to Confession and Executed
This statement is true to the best of my knowledge and belief. Except where I indicate to the contrary, I make this statement on the basis of facts and matters within my own knowledge. To the extent that the facts and matters in this statement are within my own knowledge, they are true. Where the facts and matters are not within my own knowledge, I have identified the source or sources of my information and I believe such facts to be true.
My name is Owdeh Afravi, son of Karim. I was born on March 21, 1954 in [the city of] Ahvaz. I am married and have six children. I also have three sisters and three brothers, one of whom, a worker at Luleh Navard Ahvaz Company, was killed in 1984 as a result of air raids by Iraqi warplanes [during the Iran-Iraq war]. I have a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Ahvaz University. I worked as a psychologist at Ahvaz University’s Golestan Hospital for thirty years. I retired in 2005-2006. Subsequently, I founded the Ebne Heysam Center for Psychological Services, thereby trying to be of service to my fellow citizens. We used to distribute pamphlets and brochures to primary schools and high schools in order to ameliorate the population’s mental health. In addition, in order to promote culture in our society, we used to organize meetings in my own home or other friends’ homes to study the Koran and the Arabic language.
Activities Prior to Arrest
Young people participated in our Koran meetings at the Center, and, in addition to reading the Koran and [studying] Arabic, we would talk about different subjects of interest. I am a modernist when it comes to religion. I am a Moslem but with new thoughts, and it was these new thoughts that I wanted to put forth. I have criticisms of Shiite as well as Sunni beliefs. Shiism does not have a logical and traditional basis in the Koran. It is extremely important to the governing clergy not to lose its current position. They are fearful of the people becoming [knowledgeable and] aware. They have made the [Shiite] Imams into a sort of super-human beings and they humiliate people by using that language [and narrative]. When they say Ma’sum [innocent and incapable of making a mistake] Imam, they make them into an unreachable and unattainable being that regular human beings can never be or become. Ma’sum is a person who does not make mistakes, either purposely or inadvertently, which is completely contrary to man’s bio-psychological make-up and to the Koran. But if you want to talk about these things, the powers that be will not tolerate it. As soon as you want to criticize Shiism, they label you: Are you Sunni, Baha’i, Wahabi? Charges [that are dangerous].
I have criticisms of Shiite as well as Sunni beliefs. Shiism does not have a logical and traditional basis in the Koran. It is extremely important to the governing clergy not to lose its current position. They are fearful of the people becoming [knowledgeable and] aware. They have made the [Shiite] Imams into a sort of super-human beings and they humiliate people by using that language [and narrative].
The truth is that social, economic, and political problems are some of the reasons for mental illness. They are causes of stress, and lead to illness. That’s why people need to be told about them. There’s work that needs to be done, and that was what we were doing at the Center. We would talk about everything at our Koran [study] meetings. There may have been things that were said [that the government didn’t like] but it is not certain that it was so. This was all in theory, and there’s a divide between theory and practice.
After the April 2005 protests in Ahvaz *, a number of the people who participated in our meetings were arrested, some before and some after us. Prior to the arrest, unknown persons (possibly security forces) had made phone threats against me, saying that [the purpose of] my Center was not to provide psychological services, and that it had other objectives.
On October 24, 2005, seven or eight Information agents arrested me at the Center. When I asked for an arrest warrant they said they had one but wouldn’t show it, saying “we will go there and talk.” They took me home, searched the entire house, and took everything I had in terms of books, newspapers, magazines, including Iran Farda** magazine, and computer. Our house was big and they had each gone into a room. I was walking in the yard and had the opportunity to flee. I could easily have run away but I absolutely did not think that they would bring those charges against me. I was thinking: “they would not keep me for more than two or three days, why should I run away?” But unfortunately, things turned out differently.
After the arrest, they took me to a detention center, and I don’t exactly know where it was, but I think it was close to Ahvaz Airport because I could hear planes taking off and landing. I objected the very instant they wanted to put me in a cell, saying “you said you wanted us to talk, not that you wanted to put me in a cell.” They immediately took me to a room and three of them proceeded to beat me for an hour to an hour and a half. The torture and solitary confinement continued for the next six months.
Conditions of Detention
My cell measured 2 by 2.2 meters (6.5 by 7.2 feet) and was in a hall where I could tell housed other people as well. I could sometime hear other individuals being tortured, even women who were there with their children. We would be blindfolded and handcuffed while being transferred inside the detention center and outside our cells. There was a carpet inside the cell with two blankets. That’s it. No books, no newspapers, nothing. You dealt with blank walls day and night. There was so much pressure during the first weeks of detention, and the interrogation sessions were so long that we weren’t even allowed to take a shower. We had to wait for them to take us to bathe or to go to the bathroom, even to wash for prayers. A month after detention, and upon my insistence and begging, they allowed me to talk to my family for one minute, and only in Farsi. My family was then able to bring me clothes. Before that, they had taken our pants and shoes and had given us prison uniforms which we would not wear. I was allowed to visit with my family only once. After approximately three months, I visited with my family at the Information Administration’s News Headquarters, and I was told not to say anything about detention.
I endured six months of solitary confinement, torture, insults, and humiliation at the Information Administration detention center, without the right to contact an attorney or to visit with my family. Since my detention initially coincided with the month of Ramadan, interrogations were entirely conducted at night. Subsequently, however, after Ramadan, they would take us for interrogations at all hours of day and night, whenever they wanted. Interrogations were sometimes conducted inside the cell and sometimes in some of the larger rooms there. They would take us to the big rooms when they wanted to beat us. We were blindfolded during interrogation, beating, and torture. I could not see them but I could tell from their voices that there were several interrogators who were torturers as well, and were both Arab and Persian.
They beat me so badly the first week that I couldn’t even get up and go to the bathroom. They had broken my ribs, my whole body was bruised, my face was swollen, my vision had been affected, my teeth were loose.
I can’t really paint a real picture of what it was like there and what their conduct was like. I can’t tell you what they said. They said anything they wanted, insults, cuss words, humiliation. They beat me so badly the first week that I couldn’t even get up and go to the bathroom. They had broken my ribs, my whole body was bruised, my face was swollen, my vision had been affected, my teeth were loose. What they had done to me was so bad that when they wanted to take me for interrogations after a week, they had to use air freshener on me because I smelled so badly. My fingernails were black and blue for three months.
Their beatings were not ordinary, they were specialists. For instance, they would hit you in your temples with the palm of their hands in a way that you thought you would have a stroke right then and there. Or they would punch you in the mouth in a way that would loosen your teeth. They hit you under your arms and you felt like your ribs were being torn apart. They hit me with a stick that was made neither of wood nor metal. They would beat you so much that you would lose consciousness and fall to the floor. They played with me as if I were a ball. Seven or eight of them would start kicking and punching and beating with a stick, as if they were hitting a ball. The more I resisted, the more they beat me. I would no longer be on a chair, but on the ground and being beaten with a stick, punched, and kicked, just like a ball.
For 4 or 5 consecutive nights, they would start putting pressure on us beginning early in the evening until 2 or 3 in the morning, to somehow make a film. They wanted you to confess and say what they wanted you to say on film.
They would somehow torture us every day. Sometimes when we knocked on the door to be taken to the bathroom, they would come and insult us and say “why do you keep wanting to go to the bathroom?” Sometimes they would completely ignore us. They would say “stay put, we’re coming to interrogate you in an hour.” They would come an hour later and tell us they would come an hour after that. This waiting was torture in and of itself. One time they brought me a box full of hand grenades and shotguns and the like and said: “See, we got these from your fellow townsmen. We know everything. We have arrested all those you are working with.” They tried to lie and inculcate me with what they wanted.
They kept saying: “The Ahvaz intifada is due to your thinking; you are in contact with foreigners; you’re the one who issued the orders for the bombings. You have to tell us who you were in contact with. What went on in your Koran lessons? Is it true that you were supposed to bomb apartments in Ahvaz?” And I would answer: “Is any of this even logical? If there were an organization, wouldn’t there be at least a seal, a weapon, a guideline book, a statement? What organization?! You didn’t even find as much as a knife in my pocket. You found nothing but books in my home.” And they would beat me. In the next phase of interrogations, they said: “You are going to be executed. You must come on TV and confess, and ask the Leader of the Revolution for a pardon if you want us to help you.” This was where they wanted to prepare us for their so-called trials. The torture and interrogations continued for six months. During interrogations, they showed me papers containing my son’s confessions and told me that my son had implicated me, to which I said that it was a lie. They had forced my son to make confessions under torture implicating me, saying that I had forced him to commit certain acts.
They tortured us numerous times in order to force us to make televised confessions that were [later] broadcast. A group had come from Tehran to make the film. For 4 or 5 consecutive nights, they would start putting pressure on us beginning early in the evening until 2 or 3 in the morning, to somehow make a film. They wanted you to confess and say what they wanted you to say on film. They kept saying “say this, say that, say it this way or that way.” They kept recording, erasing and recording again. The film is now available to everybody. If you watch it you will notice that I haven’t confessed to anything. I have simply stated who I am and what I have been charged with. They wanted something else and I said what I wanted to say. That was why they beat and tortured me for four or five nights, asking why I hadn’t said certain things and why I had spoken a certain way.
For example, they asked me about Zarqawi***, and when I would say “what does that have to do with me” they would respond: “Just asking.” They wanted to have me say a few words on film about Zarqawi so that they could edit it later and somehow make a connection claiming that we were doing what Zarqawi was doing. One of them was sitting behind a desk and kept hitting my leg with a stick, telling me what to say and how to say it. And when you wouldn’t say the things they wanted you to say, they would take you to the torture room. [Another example], when I was arrested I had the card of a company that was in the business of legally obtaining visas [to other countries]. My son and I had gone there and had completely legally applied for visas in order to leave the country, since, a month prior to my arrest, one of the participants in my classes had been arrested. We therefore thought it was not expedient for us to stay [in the country]. They had edited this in the film in a way to make people think we were trying to escape.
Ten or fifteen days after the arrest, a man named Kaka came to me and said he was an investigating judge of the Revolutionary Court. He wrote down about a dozen charges and said that those were the charges against me and asked me to sign the paper. Included in those charges were secessionism, contact with foreign elements, bombing, contact with Iraq, instigating the population, acting against national security, promoting the Sunni religion, and the like. They also said that I had started the Center in order to recruit people, that I was using it to train people. Right then and there I asked for an attorney; he said he had discussed the matter and that I would be allowed [a court-appointed] attorney, which was a lie, and I was never allowed to have a lawyer.
Three months after the arrest, around mid-January 2006, I was taken to court. I don’t remember the exact date because we had no means of taking notes at the detention center. They told me the night before that they would take me to court in the morning and I said that I wouldn’t go without an attorney. The interrogator said in a threatening way: “Don’t waste your money on a lawyer, WE make the decisions here. It would be to your advantage to listen to what we tell you, we will help you. But if you insist on having a lawyer, we will execute you.”
They told me that they would take me to court in the morning and I said that I wouldn’t go without an attorney. The interrogator said in a threatening way: “Don’t waste your money on a lawyer, WE make the decisions here. It would be to your advantage to listen to what we tell you, we will help you. But if you insist on having a lawyer, we will execute you.
The next morning they took me to court blindfolded, into a room with several chairs. Then they took the blindfold and the handcuffs off. There were three people there who said they were the judge, the prosecutor and the secretary. I objected to my presence there: “Why have you brought me here? I said I did not recognize this court without an attorney.” They said they would get me a court-appointed lawyer and right there, they called someone who came and sat in the session. I said: “We can’t do it like this, I have to talk to my lawyer first.” “Your lawyer will talk to you later,” they responded. “When my attorney comes, I’ll come here and answer your questions,” I stated. They said they only had a couple of questions. So we talked for a few minutes, they got my information, and asked a couple of questions about what I was doing, who I was in contact with, which I considered invalid questions and refused to answer. Ultimately, they asked if I was willing to make a televised confession and ask the Leader for a pardon, to which I said no. that was my trial, and I never saw the court-appointed lawyer again.
The trial was a sham and didn’t last more than ten minutes. I was there alone; there were no other defendants. I think the judge’s name was Rashidi. The prosecutor’s name was Amirkhani. I had maybe five minutes to speak and I said: “I have been tortured and harmed. [All I have done is that] I have defended the rights of my people.” They said I was Mohareb (“one who wages war with God”) and Mofsede-fel-Arz (“one who spreads corruption on Earth”). I wanted to talk with them and discuss whether they even knew what those words meant. Did they know what Mohareb meant? Who is considered a Mohareb? What is an example of a Mohareb? These were a bunch of baseless charges without any form of evidence whatsoever. A crime is defined in the law and if I have committed a crime, I will accept responsibility for it. I said this to the judge right then and I said: “If I have committed an actual crime, tell me and provide evidence for it and do whatever you want with me.” “We will execute you,” they said. “Go ahead,” I replied.
A few days after the trial, they notified me of the court decision which was a 20-year jail sentence and exile in [the city of] Ardebil Prison. I objected to the sentence, saying that I had been deprived of counsel and I had not committed a crime; that they had said they would allow a court-appointed lawyer, and that I did not accept the decision. They told me to sign the decision which I did. They said they sent it to the Court of Appeals.
I was still kept at the Information detention center after the trial and the psychological pressure continued. Even though I had been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, they still threatened me with execution. The interrogations and the pressure continued. They still expected me to appear before the cameras and beg the Leader for a pardon. On April 23, 2006, almost six months after being arrested, I was transferred to Ardebil Prison. A week later, I received notification that the 20-year sentence had been upheld by the Court of Appeals.
At Ardebil Prison, I tried to hire an attorney again and appeal the decision. Initially I hired two attorneys, Messrs. Kalani and Qahari, who went to Ahvaz to follow up on the case, but said they hadn’t even been allowed to enter the prosecutor’s office. After a while, I retained Mr. Faghihi, who wrote a 24-page brief [and filed an appeal] which was denied again. Then he suggested that I write to the head of the Judiciary, which I refused, because I knew it was a dead-end: this was not a legal decision but a political one, and I could never bow down to them.
I spent almost 9 years in Ardebil Prison. I moved my family to Ardebil so that at least they could be close. I spent a short while in the temporary detention ward, and then two years in Ward 7 which had only a room and a small yard. I also spent a few months as psychologist at the prison infirmary. Most prisoners had numerous problems. In prison they had gotten used to using pills and medication. I tried to explain to them that the drugs they were using were addictive and that they should instead exercise or use other methods. But prison authorities then said that I was brainwashing the prisoners and didn’t allow me to continue. It was a general prison with its own set of problems and it was very hard on me. I spent eight or nine years there. I became sick a few times and needed care. My molars had been loose and broken because of the punches I had received while at the Information detention center and I had to pull them when I went to prison. I don’t have molars now. Also, I had developed kidney problems. Once I had prostate surgery. But they would not agree for me to be taken to a doctor outside prison. They were especially uncompromising at the early stages. Finally, after repeated objections and hunger strikes, I was able to see a specialist. Later, I put up a deed of title to a property as bond and was allowed to go on leave a few times. I did not say anything while in prison and they themselves said they were happy with me.
I tried to explain to them that the drugs they were using were addictive and that they should instead exercise or use other methods. But prison authorities then said that I was brainwashing the prisoners
As a psychologist, I tried to endure the pressures of prison. I knew at times that I had to rest and I would therefore go to the infirmary and obtain pills so I could do so. But certain harms such as stress are not immediately observable and it might take some time before its effects can be seen. The thought of what was happening to my family was a source of stress, because, after all, I had small children, in elementary school or in high school. So was the forced participation in various prison activities such as partaking in Shiite mourning rituals or in other cultural programs.
Before the 2013 presidential elections, a letter was sent to Ardebil through Ahvaz which prohibited us going on leave. My family was contacted several times and told not to talk to foreign media. When one of my children became sick, my wife brought evidence to that effect and said that my child needed me, whereupon, after putting up a deed of title to property, they allowed me to go on leave for four days. It was around October-November 2013 that I went on leave and never went back to prison. I hid in villages in [the city of] Orumieh and was able to enter Turkey after a month.
About My Son Ali Afravi
The biggest pain I endured in prison was the news of my son’s execution and I don’t think there is a bigger pain. My son Ali Afravi, a high school graduate, was born in December 1987 but I had gotten his birth certificate to state his date of birth as September so he could go to school earlier. What that means is that at the time of his arrest, he was not 18 years old yet even though his birth certificate stated that he was. Ali was a smart boy and was fluent in English and Arabic. He was getting ready to take the university entrance exams. He had participated in the April 2005 protests in Ahvaz, and was generally interested in social and cultural activities. When he was 14, he became a member of the neighborhood Bassij for a short time but left very quickly. He worked with the Young Reporters Club and was interested in historical and social subjects, especially history books. Ali also took part in the institute’s Koran classes.
A few days prior to my arrest, a relative said that security forces were after Ali. I was trying to find out which Ali, and what exactly they were talking about when I myself got arrested. As I was told later by my family members, on October 27, 2005, three days after my arrest, information agents had come to our house with four vehicles and had arrested Ali around noon that day. Afterward, the family had not been able to obtain any information about him no matter how hard they tried. They didn’t know where he was; no phone calls, no visitation. And the night before his execution, they announced his sentence on TV, broadcast his confession, and the next day, March 2, 2006, they hanged him in public. They refused to surrender the body to our family and simply buried him in a remote cemetery outside of Ahvaz, called Berumi, and didn’t even tell the family where he was buried. Our family was able to find out where he was laid to rest after they inquired with a bunch of different mortuaries. They didn’t even allow us to hold a wake for him.
I think it was about ten or fifteen days after my arrest that they told me they had arrested my son. When I asked why, they said that he was accused of bombing. I said if my son had done such a thing, I would hang him myself. It was unacceptable to me. The entire time I was in detention, I had no idea where Ali was or what he was doing but I felt like he was at the same detention center. Nothing was even mentioned about him during my trial. A week before I was transferred to Ardebil Prison, I was told that they had carried out Ali’s sentence but I didn’t believe them. Two or three weeks after I had been at Ardebil Prison, I was told by my family, who had come to visit me, that he had been hanged.
During interrogations, they showed me parts of my son’s confession and told me that he had incriminated me. I said that it was lie. Under torture, they had forced him to confess that I had gotten him to carry out certain acts. Later, however, at a televised interview, they had forced him to confess differently, and to allude to individuals in Europe and America, and say that it was they who had forced him to do things. How on Earth they had forced him to mention those people by name or make false confessions against me, I will never know. But there are plenty of contradictions in the confessions they forced out of him. For instance, he had said that the video of the bombing scenes was recorded from inside my car, whereas I didn’t even have a car at that time. I bought the car from the company and the date of purchase is clear, and there are documents that show I took possession of the car after the bombings. They have these documents, both the manufacturer’s and the seller’s.
This is what they did to my child, obtaining false and forced confessions from him under torture, a child that who was so young there was hardly any hair on his face. I wish they had only conducted a public trial for him. I wish they had observed due process and allowed him to have an attorney so he could defend himself. I wish we could have gotten him an attorney who could have defended him. I wish they had given him time to truly say the things he wanted to say. He had no attorney and no one had any news of him, no contact, no calls to the family, no visitation, nothing, nothing … They did everything themselves: [They tried him], they hanged him, and they buried him, and they do not answer to anyone. This is the biggest pain and the worst stress anyone can endure; I don’t think there is anything worse in the world. This is what happened to us, and those people have to answer to the people and to God.
*A Brief Summary of the Khuzestan Protests of April 2005
Subsequent to the publication of a letter dated July 24 1998, ascribed to then-President Khatami’s Chief of Staff, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, demonstrations protesting this letter broke out on Friday, April 15, 2005, first in [the city of] Ahvaz, and then in other cities such as Mahshahr and Hamidideh, and continued for several days. The letter emphasized modification of Khuzestan Province’s ethnic Arab population through promotion and encouragement of migration of non-native populations to the Province, and [thus] reducing Khuzestan’s Arab population to one third of the total population of the Province. Although the government’s spokesperson officially denied this letter on Saturday, April 16, the demonstrations that had been called by the “Coordination Committee for Popular Protests in Ahvaz” continued extensively in the coming days. In calling for demonstrations, [the organizers] highlighted various factors including “the central government’s policies in expropriating Arab farmers’ lands for various projects such as sugar cane development,” and “marginalization of, as well as profound discontent among, Khuzestan’s Arab [population] as a result of the regime’s efforts to obliterate Arab identity.”
The demonstrations that started on April 15, 2005, from Kuye Alavi (Shelangabad/Da’ereh), one of [the city of] Ahvaz’ poor neighborhoods, quickly spread to the center of Ahvaz and to the cities of Mahshahr and Hamidieh. Citing Ahvaz News (a news organization) and eyewitnesses at the scene, Ahvaz Human Rights Organization’s bulletin dated April 15, 2005, stated: “Around three thousand Arab people of Ahvaz, have gathered together and started extensive but peaceful demonstrations in Kordovani Street and Square, along with thousands of others in neighborhoods such as Shelangabad, Malashieh, Ameri, Kut Abdollah, among others. Security forces are attacking the demonstrators, first with tear gas, and are subsequently firing on them in Da’ereh and Malashieh neighborhoods.” The degree of violence resorted to by security and police forces in quashing the demonstrations, was such that it led to the death of a number of protestors. Dozens more were injured. Subsequent to these deaths, the intensity and magnitude of the protests increased. In a number of towns, demonstrators proceeded to cut off roads, and occupy government buildings and police posts. These protests continued for 10 days in many Arab regions of Khuzestan. Protestors demanded a government apology to the region’s Arabs. Official government sources, quoting the Islamic Republic’s Defense Minister, announced the death toll as standing at three or four. (ISNA, April 19, 2005) Civil society activists, however, declared the number of people killed during these events to be between 50 and 60. Amnesty International states the number as 29, Human Rights Watch, 50, and Ahvaz Human Rights Organization, 160. Dozens of others were injured. The Ahvaz General and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office announced the arrest and arraignment of 447 individuals. (IRNA, April 25, 2005). Local sources, however, announced that number as being more than 1200. A number of intellectuals and ethnic leaders were among those arrested. Although the demonstrations subsided after ten days, widespread arrests, multiple bombings, successive executions, and popular protests continued on various occasions, including the anniversary of the events.
**Iran Farda was a publication critical of the [Iranian government] and close to the nationalist-religious movement. It was published in the 1990’s by Ezzatollah Sahabi as the Director and Reza Alijani as editor-in-chief. Iran Farda along with a wave of other publications, was banned from publication in May 2000 following a speech by the leader of the Islamic Republic.
***Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian fundamentalist who founded al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in Lebanon in 1990. He joined al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden in 2004 and became the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed by American forces in Iraq in 2006.