A Year Here is Like 10 Somewhere Else: Witness Testimony from Lajevardi Drug Camp
Date of Interview: March 18, 2019.
Based on reports from another local source, as well as former fellow inmates of the interviewee with whom he remains in touch, conditions at the facility remain the same. Some details have been omitted or changed in order to preserve the anonymity of the source.
I’m in my thirties. In the 2000s, when I was 21 or 22 years old, I’d go to work early in the morning on my motorcycle. I owned a table and chair rental business at the time, and was making plans for my future. I was on the way to my store one day when the police stopped me at an inspection point. I was not wearing a helmet and did not have a motorcycle license. They seized my motorcycle and proceeded to take me away. The officer who had arrested me kept telling me “I will let you go” every 50 yards. I would tell him: “Why did you arrest me in the first place? I was just going to work. Please, for the love of God, let it go.” And he kept saying “I’ll let you go right now”. I even offered him fifty thousand Tumans but he didn’t take it and said: “I will let you go a little further down the road.” Ultimately, he took me in front of the Police Precinct. I panicked when we got there and ran away. They got me and handcuffed me to the flag pole. I was in that condition for about half an hour until they changed shifts at exactly seven o’ clock in the morning. An officer came and took me to a room and began questioning me. I asked: “What is this interrogation for?” He said: “They got 5 grams of crack from you.” “Sir! What are you talking about? What crack?” I asked. “The [officers in the] previous shift have written a report that they recovered 5 grams of crack from you,” he replied. I swore up and down that I didn’t have even a cigarette on me, but it was no use. They interrogated me and then took me to a local Revolutionary Court that same day. The judge set bail at 30 million Tumans in the form of a deed in order to release me, but they sent me to jail since I was not immediately able to secure a deed. I was in prison for 20 days and then I got out by posting a deed as bail. Two months later, I was served with the notice of a three year prison sentence. I consulted with several lawyers and they said “the way the police officer’s report is written against you is such that we can’t do anything for you. If we take on your case, you’ll have to pay us 5 or 10 million Tumans, but it will not make any difference in your sentence”. So I did not hire a lawyer. I took a witness to court, but the judge didn’t even let him inside the courtroom. I told the judge: “Those drugs are not mine. I had nothing to do with it.” But the judge didn’t even let me defend myself. He said: “Those 5 grams of crack are yours. Do you accept that?” “No,” I said. “You don’t? Whose is it then? Mine?” he said. I told the story of what had happened once again and explained to him that I had absolutely no knowledge of those drugs. The judge said: “You keep repeating the same things over and over again. Get out.” No matter how much I begged, swore, and pleaded with him, he wouldn’t listen; it was no use. They told me “the police officer recovered the drugs from your pocket”. The police officer wasn’t even in court to face me for me to tell him to look me in the eyes and tell me the drugs belonged to me. I never saw him again. The entire trial lasted three or four minutes.
The entire trial lasted three or four minutes.
I had a table and chair rental business before my arrest. I had a girlfriend and we were planning to get married. She left Iran when I went to prison and I was left alone. I lost my business when I got out of jail. Everybody looked at me differently. They actually thought I was dealing drugs. I looked around for a job everywhere for two years, but the economy was not doing well and I was not able to find work. I gradually established contact with a drug dealer I had met in prison, and this time, I actually got into selling drugs. I turned from a good person into a major drug dealer.
Victims of a Lack of Justice
In 2009 or 2010, I was arrested with under 40 kilograms of opium by the Headquarters for Combatting Illicit Drugs agents. I was tried at a local Revolutionary Court and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. They took me to a narcotics camp located in the Farahabad suburb of Sari called the Shahid Lajevardi Camp. I served seven years there and I was pardoned for the rest. Prison terms for prisoners incarcerated at the Farahabad camp range from short sentences to life in prison. Criminals sentenced to death are not kept at the Camp. The Camp’s capacity is five hundred but the number of prisoners at times reached three thousand.
I met many people at that camp who were innocent like the first time I went to jail. For example, I have a friend who got 20 years for drugs that weren’t even his at all. Someone was transporting drugs with his car and had fled when they stopped him for inspection; they subsequently arrested this other guy who was the owner of the car. They spent a year looking for the owner of the drugs but they weren’t able to find him, so they gave this guy a 20-year prison sentence. Another friend of mine had borrowed his friend’s car and was driving when the car was stopped because the officers were looking for the car itself. They found 2 kilos of crystal meth inside the car. The owner of the drugs was a fugitive for two years and was subsequently not prosecuted. The driver got life in prison. Yet another friend was arrested because they discovered 130 grams of crack at his home, but the drugs were not his at all; someone had brought it to his home and left it there without his knowledge. He got life in prison. He’s been in prison for 10 years now. I have a friend whose home the authorities searched three times but found nothing. He was arrested another time after he’d left 100 grams of crack on the roof of his house, and got life in prison. He put up a deed and came out on leave and fled.
The Camp’s capacity is five hundred but the number of prisoners at times reached three thousand
These people arrest an innocent person knowing full well that someone else has committed the crime and the drugs belong to someone else. But they arrest the person anyway. Their thinking is “why take credit when you can take cash!” Even the court says “keep the person you’ve already arrested. If in the course of the trial, whether it’s six months or several years, the culprit is arrested, then fine; if not, we’ll keep the person who has already been arrested and the drug will be considered his.” [That’s how it is] because the Headquarters for Combatting Narcotics agents want to close their cases and issue their reports. They don’t care who is victimized in all of this. There are a lot of people in prison who are innocent. And since the sentences for drug crimes are clear cut, a lawyer can’t do anything. At best, he/she will write a brief which will be put in the case file and will serve no purpose in the adjudication of a drug case.
Old cases that carried death sentences are now being reviewed because of the new Narcotics Law. But almost none of the old cases that had prison sentences are being reviewed. These people don’t have time to even try their own new cases let alone older ones. Maybe 10 out of a hundred cases are reviewed. For instance, someone who has a life sentence or a life sentence plus one day, might get a reduced sentence and get 15 years. But the Shahid Lajevardi Camp is different from all other prisons. A year spent there is the equivalent of ten years of incarceration at other prisons
A Morass Called Shahid Lajevardi Camp
Shahid Lajevardi Camp is in Sari’s Farahabad District near the Caspian Sea. The camp is fenced in and you can only look at the sea. At the time, the Camp had seventy or eighty soldiers and forty or fifty salaried employees with an administration hall, a guard room, and a room for social workers. When you come into the camp for the first time, you have to sleep on the hall floor with two or three hundred other people, a hall that is only meant to walk through with a stone floor. You only get to go into a room after five or six months. And then, five or six months after you’ve been in a room, you get a bed.
The Camp has two blocks and two consultation centers for prisoners. Prisoners with one to 10-year prison sentences were kept in Block 1. Block 1 has two halls, which at the time held 350 prisoners each, almost 700 people. Block 2 was where people with long sentences and life sentences were kept. That block also has two halls, each of which held 350 to 400 prisoners, that is, 700 to 800 people. Another block is called Consultation 1. Everybody said that that place was clean; it was also where the social workers were. But all the drugs in the Camp would first go to Consultation and would then get distributed in other blocks. All the serious criminals were there. These were the guys who passed drugs because they had the money. They claimed they were healthy, that is, that they did not use drugs and did not smoke (since smoking cigarettes was also prohibited there). I don’t know if the social workers were involved in dealing drugs or not, but I had seen the officer who brought drugs in with my own eyes. There were about 310 to 350 prisoners there.
I don’t know if the social workers were involved in dealing drugs or not, but I had seen the officer who brought drugs in with my own eyes.
There is a large warehouse called Consultation 2 which is cleaner than the rest. This is the only place at the Shahid Lajevardi Camp were drugs are not exchanged. This section had 200 prisoners when I was at the Camp, consisting of inmates who were kind of like favorites, whose fathers or relatives had power. It also had TV, beds, and a number of other amenities. They would take all the authorities and inspectors there. That is still the case today.
Shahid Lajevardi Camp did not have drinking water. The Camp had four wells which contained salty sea water. They would get water from the wells at around 11 PM when the sea level rose a little, and would transfer the water in tankers and mix in a little bit of chlorine. The water was dark brown. It was scary to look at the water pipes. Pipes with drinking water were about one kilometer (0.6 miles) away, that is, at the beach. But the camp did not have pipes with drinking water and I know that it still doesn’t. Do you know what that means? That means that prisoners there drink salty sea water with sand in it. The alternative was to buy bottled water which was two thousand Tumans per liter, which only those who were well off could afford to buy. But even then, how financially well off can you be [to be able to afford buying bottled water]? You had to go up and down 30 steps at least twice a day; you also get thirsty after a meal; in other words, you need to drink water several times a day. How many bottles of water can you buy?
We had to boil the Camp’s water in order to be able to consume it. But where could we do that and with what? In the morning, they would give us boiled water for tea, which, of course, was not really boiled. But in order to get even that, we had to have a flask, only large enough to hold three or four glasses of water which we had to use for both tea and for drinking. We would leave the flask behind the window so that it would cool off and we could use as drinking water. But even a flask was not something that just anybody could have: you could get a flask and set it aside only if you had been serving a long prison sentence, 10 years for example, and you had a certain amount of power. That same water was cut off, however, from May to October from 8:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon. I swear to God, prisoners were panting for drinking water, a normal and routine daily need. I also have to mention that as hot and humid as the summers were because of the proximity to the sea, we didn’t even have a fan.
The camp did not have pipes with drinking water and I know that it still doesn’t. Do you know what that means? That means that prisoners there drink salty sea water with sand in it.
The food they gave us was very low quality and was not enough to make us full; it was just enough so we could say we had eaten something. We were allowed to take the large pot containing our food to our ward about an hour after they brought it to us. The food was served three times a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We were not allowed to cook nor did we have the facilities to cook. There was a sandwich shop at the Camp where you could buy food if you had the money; otherwise you had to make do with the meager prison food. They would give us Adass Polo (rice with lentil) or Estamboli Polo (rice with potatoes) with yogurt. They would give us chicken once a week which my ward mates would jokingly call “trace of chicken”. They gave us something that looked like Ghormeh Sabzi (a traditional beef and vegetable stew) but you couldn’t even call it that. At night, they would serve a single potato that three people had to share. Sometimes they would give us each an egg or minced meat pancakes that we called “slippers”. They did not bring a single fruit in all the seven years I was at that Camp. Vegetables? What vegetables? Of course you could live [well enough] in that prison if you had money, but what percentage of prisoners do you think had any money? At most 5, maybe 10 percent. And no matter how much money they had, they would run out after one or two or five years. A prisoner does not have a source of income.
A Prison with No Accountability
The conditions of the prison infirmary were dreadful. For instance, every time we were supposed to go to the infirmary, they would line us up like sheep in groups of 10, 20, or even 100, and then take us there. If the doctor felt like it, he would treat maybe one person, and would give prescriptions to the others, usually for some medication that served absolutely no purpose. And when the doctor didn’t feel like it, he would turn us all away and say get out; nothing at all. We had prisoners who had tuberculosis. Two of the guys from my own neighborhood developed tuberculosis at the Camp. They are still thin and scrawny, years after leaving Iran. I’m positive 10 to 20 percent of the prisoners inside the prison have tuberculosis. Cigarettes are free and a lot of people smoke.
Prisoners coming back from leave were placed in a quarantine that had a 20-person capacity with 120 to 140 other people. Then they would inspect everyone to make sure they weren’t bringing in drugs. One time, a prisoner had swallowed drugs to bring into the prison. He threw up the drugs while in quarantine but one of the packages containing the drugs had broken open in his stomach. They called the duty officer. The prison warden said: “Anybody who eats drugs should die.” They didn’t even take him to the clinic to save the poor guy’s life. He died. Death also occurred due to hepatitis or malnutrition. It seemed that no one was accountable at that prison.
There are five toilets and sinks in a hall for about 400 inmates and they have to use these same bathrooms to wash their dishes
Hygiene was also dreadful at the Camp. The second floor had three showers, as did the third floor. Twice a week, the entire Hall 1 with three hundred and some people would take showers as would Hall 2 with the same number of inmates. And hot water was available for no more than an hour. There are five toilets and sinks in a hall for about 400 inmates and they have to use these same bathrooms to wash their dishes.
Cigarettes and drugs were readily available inside the prison; it was all brought in by the guards [and the soldiers]. I have several friends who are dealing drugs right there in the prison. And of course the person who gets caught is the prisoner and they will never be pardoned afterwards. The guards’ conduct, however, does not change and drugs continue to be bought and sold inside. For instance, four months ago, one of the guys from my town was caught with a kilo of crystal meth inside the prison. He had a 2-year sentence when he started serving time. He had been caught with 100 grams of crack a few years ago and had gotten a life sentence. The guards themselves brought him the meth. Then they turned on him and sold him out. This time, they recovered a kilo of meth from him and he got another life sentence.
Our Hall had a TV set that fewer than 400 people would watch. The TV was bought with the inmates’ money. Whatever facilities they want to add, or even if they just want to paint the walls, they get the money from the inmates. They say “the General Administration doesn’t give us any money”. They even got the money for the prayer room rug from Raybaz (1) inmates or prisoners who regularly go on leave.
Of course the person who gets caught is the prisoner and they will never be pardoned afterwards. The guards’ conduct does not change and drugs continue to be bought and sold
There were three or four telephone booths at the lower level for 700 inmates. The halls took turns: One day, it was one hall’s turn to call and the next day it was the other’s. It was not important for them if you had a problem, a challenge, or needed to get in touch with your family on a day that was not your turn to call; you just couldn’t make the call and there was nothing you could do.
We had two to three visitations per week, but it was up to the Warden to let in a particular inmate’s family that had come for visitation. To have an inmate’s family drive for four hours from where they lived, wait behind the prison gate for another 3 to 4 hours, and ultimately not be allowed in was a routine occurrence. There was no accountability and you couldn’t count on anything. How can you expect accountability from a prison that doesn’t even have drinking water?
Visitation time for single prisoners was two minutes; a married inmate’s wife and kids who had come for a visit could stay five minutes. For in-person visitations, however, which were only once a month, you had to make a request beforehand. If the Prison Protection Division approved the request and the head of the Adherence to Faith Division signed it (stating whether the person participated in prayers or Koran classes), then that inmate would be allowed to have an in-person visitation.
To have an inmate’s family drive for four hours from where they lived, wait behind the prison gate for another 3 to 4 hours, and ultimately not be allowed in was a routine occurrence.
There are no classes about quitting an addiction or addiction prevention at Shahid Lajevardi Camp, which is supposedly reserved for prisoners convicted of drug related crimes, but there is a mandatory Koran class every morning.
The Camp has several social workers who even have offices but I don’t know what it is that they do exactly. In all the years I was there, I saw nothing from them in terms of any type of services. But they’re there and they have a friendly attitude. The prison guards’ behavior is not rigid like the Judiciary officers either. For instance, they’re not that strict about violation of prison rules such as drug use [primarily] because they’re the ones who provide the drugs. If an inmate uses drugs in bed, the guard turns away as if he had seen nothing at all.
Of course, they punish you if you raise hell and a fight breaks out in the Camp. For instance, they take a prisoner to the yard and cuff him to the flag pole and flog him. Or they tie one hand and one leg to the top of the pole and leave him hanging there for 3 or 4 hours. Or they put steel handcuffs on him and give him electric shocks through the handcuffs with a shocker. But if things remain quiet, everyone just does their own thing.
Controlling the Prison Population with Drugs
There are no facilities and nothing to occupy the prisoners time, and so the only way they can control the prison population is through drugs. At the time I was there, inmates would get in line from 8 or 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon to get methadone, which means that they had gotten everybody addicted so they could keep them in line.
A person who does not use drugs worries about being released and starting a normal life once again. But people on methadone only think about where to go to smoke, get some meth, get some pills, and just nap. That’s exactly what prison officials want: They want the inmates to take methadone and sit down somewhere and not fight and just quiet down.
But people on methadone only think about where to go to smoke, get some meth, get some pills, and just nap. That’s exactly what prison officials want
Not everybody could afford to pay four hundred thousand Tumans for a gram of crystal meth or a hundred thousand Tumans for a gram of opium. Therefore, they would turn to methadone. Once they got hooked on methadone it was the end of them. They no longer had the energy to speak and demand their rights and protest. When a person uses crystal meth, he causes disturbances and starts fights but when he uses methadone, he gets stoned [and has no energy]. They’ve hooked everybody on methadone. There were maybe 10 or 15 people in an entire hall that did not use methadone.
They would get 30 to 40 thousand Tumans a month from each person for methadone. They would give you a daily dose of 10 to 15 cc’s, depending on what you looked like. You would open your mouth and they would pour it in your mouth with a syringe, as if feeding a bird. A number of prisoners lost their teeth due to methadone abuse. Others would swell up and get fat. Still others would get very thin and their color would get darker. They would fall on their bed when they took methadone; they could at most drag themselves to the bathroom. They would smoke cigarettes and drink tea in their beds, waiting for the day to turn into night. They could not think clearly anymore and their brains lost the capacity to think about anything else.
Some people would go to the infirmary, and after they were given methadone by mouth, they would throw it up and give it to someone else. They usually did not give methadone to new people who had just come in, and they were kept languishing for a week. Also, they don’t give an inmate methadone if he doesn’t have any money or if the doctor simply doesn’t like the way he looks. For instance, a prisoner who comes in on a Saturday and does not have a weekly [doctor’s] visit until Wednesday, does not get any methadone ration for those few days and must wait. And they beg everyone for methadone: “Please, leave some in the back of your mouth for me when you get your methadone.” There are people who don’t get in line for methadone and this is the way they get their fix.
The officials pretend like they’re making better people out of the prisoners, but they have, in effect, put them in a much worse situation. Some of the doctors have learned to traffic in methadone. You sign up, provide your national identification number, pay, and you get your methadone and you take it. Even if you can’t or don’t do any of those things, there are methadone “pushers”. Shopkeepers secretly sell it. I know dozens of people who sell methadone on the street. If anybody wants to kick their methadone addiction at the Camp, they’re told: “What do you mean kick your habit? You’ll die if you kick it! Continue to take it! Methadone is not bad for you!” That person’s life is shattered and destroyed. What’s the difference between methadone and other drugs? The brains of both methadone users and users of other drugs are shut down, and both groups are slaves to their drugs. * Some of the doctors have learned to traffic in methadone.
Drug addicts and non-addicts are together at the Camp. For instance, I myself was never a user but I was incarcerated there.
Dangling the Dead as a Lesson to Others
When the inmates would wake up, they would see from their windows these poor people’s bodies dangling in the Camp courtyard. The inmates would curse at the officials from their windows but they didn’t care.
Death row inmates are not incarcerated at the Camp, but at times, they carry out executions in the Camp yard to serve as a lesson to the inmates. A few years ago, they brought in three or four people, two of whom were Afghans, in the yard early in the morning and hanged them. Another time, they brought in a man and a woman. And yet another time they brought in one person. These occurred between 2010 and 2015. They would hang these people at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning and their bodies would stay up there until 8:00 or 9:00 AM. When the inmates would wake up, they would see from their windows these poor people’s bodies dangling in the Camp courtyard. The inmates would curse at the officials from their windows but they didn’t care. They wanted the hanging to serve as a lesson. Where in the world does murdering another human being serve as a lesson for anything? What people see and think is: “Someone like me, going through the same pain as me, maybe with a heavier sentence, has been executed. I don’t care anymore at all. I have seen it all and I’m not afraid of anything anymore [if I decide] to continue down this path [of drug dealing].” The effect of these scenes on prisoners is to destroy them mentally and psychologically.
I spent seven years at that Camp, in all the circumstances I described. When I got out I had lost my teeth, my hair had gone grey, and my beard had turned white. I had neither the energy nor the incentive to live; I was a mess. It took me a year to pull myself together.
I ask myself: Is there no one to pay attention to and care about this prison? The answer is no; nobody cares about this Camp and no one is accountable.
 Raybaz prisoner: Pursuant to Articles 56 and 57 of the Law for the Rules of Criminal Procedure, certain inmates, especially those convicted of financial crimes, may spend the day outside the prison as an apprentice, in order to work, or even spend time with their family for the purpose of strengthening and maintaining family bonds, or to get treatment for addiction, and return to prison at night.