By Shima Shahrabi
September 29, 2020
The death of 35-year-old Iranian prisoner Nader Mokhtari at the hands of his torturers has sparked outrage and widespread criticism of the lies told by Iran’s judiciary.
News broke of the young protester’s death in prison on Monday, September 21, with the website Kaleme writing: “Nader Mokhtari, one of the protesters in November 2019, was in a coma for some time due to being beaten with batons during the protests. But before Nowruz [Iranian New Year, in March] 2020 and after regaining consciousness, he was transferred to a detention center against the advice of specialized doctors.”
The same website alleged that Mokhtari’s being transferred to prison had worsened his already ailing physical condition. A family friend told reporters Mokhtari had been left with a fractured skull and broken arm as a result of torture, and had died behind bars on Saturday, September 19.
The following day Heshmatollah Hayat Algheyb, director-general of Tehran Province Prisons Organization, claimed in a statement that Nader Mokhtari had not only been detained over the November 2019 protests but was a convicted “bag-snatcher” serving a prison sentence for robbery. He further claimed that Mokhtari, who suffered from asthma, had died from “shortness of breath” in prison.
Algheyb’s remarks were slammed by a person close to the Mokhtari family, who told Kaleme the prisons official’s remarks had been “shameless lies”. The same website also posted a video of the young protester in a critical condition at a hospital intensive care unit after being apprehended.
This is not the first time the Iranian prison authorities appear to have told outright lies about the deaths of people in their custody. The report that follows is an overview of some of the most brazen mistruths issued about prisoner deaths in the Islamic Republic in recent years.
Fury Over ‘Slanderous’ Allegations Against Nader Mokhtari
“Why do you falsely slander this beloved child of the family, and accuse him of being a bag snatcher and a thief? Nader had not been in prison since 2015, and all these shameless lies are a means to evade the [truth about the] torture and murder of Nader Mokhtari. November 2019 was the date of Nader’s arrest.”
This furious rebuttal came from a source close to the Mokhtari family after the damning comments of Tehran Prisons Organization director-general Heshmatollah Hayat Algheyb on September 22. Nader Mokhtari’s family, the source added, had lost all contact with their son for 20 days from November 15, 2019 – after which they found him in an ICU bed at the Haft Tir Martyrs Hospital, Tehran.
The 35-year-old was left in a coma after an altercation at the protest. “Nader was tortured in the worst way possible,” they said. “He was like skin and bones, his head was swollen, his teeth were broken, his arm was broken and not treated.”
Mokhtari is understood to have been beaten with batons in custody. “Nader had normal asthma,” the source retorted to Algheyb’s suggestion the young man had died of breathing difficulties. “Does asthma lead to fractures of the head and arms, and to a coma and the death of a human being?”
“Nader’s family is under a lot of pressure,” they added. “From the moment his family found him in a coma in hospital, the security forces made them stay silent. They threatened Nader’s father and told him, ‘Go, otherwise they’ll take you to prison and inflict the same calamities on you as your son’. They constantly harassed and threatened to arrest the family. In this situation, it is natural that they cannot and do not want to speak.”
Mokhtari was buried on September 22 in Beheshte Sakineh Cemetery cemetery in Karaj, under strict security surveillance: “When the family went to the Kahrizak morgue to identify the body, they were only shown his eyes and not allowed to view the whole body, because Nader was tortured and the marks of torture remained on his body. Nader was buried without an identity card and his other documents were destroyed. What was this for?”
A Terrible Precedent in Iranian Prisons
Nader Mokhtari’s tragic fate echoes that of Saru Ghahremani‘s family, a 24-year-old man from Sanandaj who disappeared in the middle of protests in January 2018, and whose body was delivered to his family by security agents 11 days later. He had been beaten to death in custody and his body brought home in an ambulance.
When news of Saru’s death broke, Sanandaj governor Mohammad Ebrahim Zarei, in an interview with IRNA, described Ghahremani as being affiliated with “terrorist groups”. He said: “Saru had a record in this field and once in 2012 was arrested for plotting to assassinate one of his compatriots, and was sentenced to 5 years in prison. He was released after two years in prison [on a pardon] because of Islamic kindness. But he had resumed his cooperation with terrorist groups.”
Zarei also gave a different account of how Ghahremani was killed: “This person made an armed threat to a citizen in a parking lot in Sanandaj on December 25 and fled a few minutes later. The threatened person reported him to the police. All the documentation is also available.
“When this person and an associate of his were being pursued by officers they escaped from the scene without paying any attention to the officers’ stop order, and then shot at the officers. He was killed in the clashes.”
A source close to the Ghahremani family told IranWire that all the remarks had been “lies” and in fact, the young man had only once been detained at the age of 18 for supporting the Kurdish Democratic Party. In the aftermath Ghahremani’s father, they said, was “pressured” into repeating the falsehoods on television.
“He was threatened with the deaths of other members of his family and forced to say whatever they wanted,” the soure added. “A person who has just buried his 24-year-old son fears for the lives of the rest of his family.”
The circumstances around Saru Ghahremani’s burial were similarly suspicious. “If they [the authorities] weren’t lying,” the source demanded, “why has the date of the shootout not been announced? Why did they deliver Saru’s body 11 days after he disappeared, [despite the fact that] his family had notified the police station? Why did they not allow his relatives to participate in the funeral? Why they did not give the family the death certificate?”
No Justice for Young People Killed in Detention
A contemporary of Saru Ghahremani’s, Sina Ghanbari, was also detained in January 2018 and died on January 8 as a prisoner of conscience in Evin Prison. Mostafa Mohebbi, the then-director general of the Tehran Prisons Organization, said the cause of death had been “suicide by hanging in the prison toilet.”
But sometime later, Alireza Rahimi, a member of parliament who had visited Evin Prison at the time, announced that there was no video footage of Sina Ghanbari committing suicide in prison despite the fact that a CCTV camera was installed in the bathroom. The authorities could provide no evidence of Sina Ghanbari’s suicide to his family, claiming instead that the bathroom camera had been broken.
A year after Sina Ghanbari’s death, his mother broke her silence in an interview with VOA, explicitly stating that her 22-year-old son had been killed in prison. “Sina was excitedly planning his birthday before he was arrested,” she said. “It is impossible for a young man in those spirits to commit suicide.” She said they had spoken on the phone twice during his detention and the second time, he told her he had been beaten, but was still in good spirits. Not one per cent of her believed that her son had killed himself, she said.
Yet another man detained during the January 2018 protests, Vahid Heydari, died in Arak detention center in the same month. On January 14 a judiciary spokesman claimed that “someone” had committed suicide at Arak, adding: “He was a drug addict with a history and carried drugs. A case has been filed and is being processed.”
Vahid Heydari’s uncle told the Center for Human Rights in Iran: “We still do not know what happened because we were in the village while Vahid was in Arak. He had a business and was at work. He was not an addict, and what they say is not true.”
Heydari was buried on January 6, 2018. An Arak-based civil rights activist told IranWire: “One of his relatives, who managed to see the body, saw the marks of beating. There was a deep wound in his head.”
Mohammad Najafi, a lawyer who had represented Heydari, had told the Center for Human Rights in Iran: “This young man was protesting. They arrested him, beat him and killed him. Now they want to destroy his reputation.” Najafi was later sentenced to 14 years in prison on numerous charges including speaking to foreign media, describing what had happened to his clients, and pursuing cases similar to that of Vahid Heydari.