Interrogation: What’s Allowed Under the Law?“I was tortured so severely on multiple occasions that I decided to end my life.” When Iranian lawyer Mahnaz Parakand’s client was first brought to Evin Prison in 2009, he was taken to Ward 209, where political prisoners are held. But just a few hours later, he was transferred to a ward, one floor below, where prisoners are regularly interrogated and forced to confess. “When they realized I wanted to commit suicide,” Parakand’s client told her, “they brought me to the torture room and stripped me naked and hung me from the wall. They beat me with an electric shocker while telling me that there was no need for me to commit suicide because they would do the job of killing me themselves.”
Descriptions of interrogations and physical and psychological torture are harrowing, revealing the brutality of Iranian prisons. But are these practices actually allowed? Is torture and extreme interrogation legal under Iranian law? The short answer is no.
Iranian law — the “Law of Respect for Legitimate Freedoms and Protection of Civil Liberties (Civil Liberties law) in particular — does outline specific rules for interrogations, including in what circumstances they can be carried out, and how they should be conducted. According to the law, which was enacted in May 2003, confessions extracted under coercion are invalid. It also states that an interrogator must not sit behind the interrogatee (the accused) and must not cover the prisoner’s face during the interrogation. Doing so is illegal, as is forcing the prisoner under interrogation to wear a blindfold. The law also states that questions asked during interrogations must be relevant to the subject of the interrogation.
Mohammad Seifzadeh, a lawyer and human rights activist based in Iran, has been interrogated 12 times — five times under the shah’s previous regime and seven times after the 1979 Revolution under the current government of the Islamic Republic. Uncovering the truth, he says, has never been the true purpose of interrogations in Iran, and laws on interrogations have systematically been ignored. “Rather, the aim has been to force the accused to confess to what interrogators want,” he says. This longstanding approach to interrogations has played an important role in shaping how court proceedings work in Iran, Seifzadeh argues. “Verdicts issued against the accused are based on these interrogations,” he says.
“The first interrogator tries to make the accused cooperate with him through using violence or by threatening him with violence,” Seifzadeh says. “If the accused resists, a second interrogator steps in and tries to make the accused co-operate by giving him false hope.” Seifzadeh has personal experience of this strategy. “When I was arrested in 2011, they threatened me first. When they realized that I was not going to surrender under their threats, they told me that if I admitted that my colleague Shirin Ebadi had received money from the CIA in order to establish the Center for the Defenders of Human Rights, I would be released immediately. I answered that if I did that, I would in fact be confessing against myself, since I was also amongst the founders of the center.”
The Shah’s Secret Police
The practice of illegal interrogations and gross violation of the rights of the accused have reached a peak at key times both before and after the 1979 Revolution, says Seifzadeh, particularly around times of unrest, or following coups or attempted coups, such as those of 1921 and 1953.
The rights of the accused were also severely breached during interrogations at the time of the suppression of 1963, when Ayatollah Khomeini was arrested, and Iran’s secret police, SAVAK, and the Anti-Sabotage Joint Committee were established as a means of combating any dissent against the shah.
In his book Iran Between Two Revolutions, Iranian historian Ervand Abrahamian states that the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, the CIA and the FBI assisted the shah's regime in establishing SAVAK in 1957, which was officially supervised by the office of the prime minister.
Abrahamian argues that SAVAK gradually expanded its networks all over Iran, enabling it to monitor and scrutinize anyone hired to work at the university, in the civil service and at large industrial plants. One of SAVAK’s main targets, he argues, was the communist party Tudeh, even though by the 1970s, the party was no longer a serious threat to the Iranian regime.
By 1977, the secret service had 5,300 full-time agents and a large number of part-time informers. According to Abrahamian, It had the power to "censor the media, screen applicants for government jobs, ... and use all means necessary, including torture, to hunt down dissidents.”
The Islamic Republic’s Mass Executions
After the revolution, notable periods where prisoners’ rights were violated include the 1980s, when the mass execution of political prisoners in Iran — in particular leftists and members of the Mojahedin — were carried out after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa. Khomeini announced the fatwa in 1988 following Iran’s announcement that it had agreed to a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war. “The fatwa created three-man commissions to determine who should be executed,” according to a Human Rights Documentation Center report. “The commissions, known by prisoners as Death Commissions, questioned prisoners about their political and religious beliefs, and depending on the answers, determined who should be executed and/or tortured. The questioning was brief, not public, there were no appeals, and prisoners were executed the same day or soon thereafter. Many who were not executed immediately were tortured.”
The executions began in late July 1988. “The Iranian government began summarily interrogating, torturing and executing thousands of political prisoners throughout the country," according to the Human Rights Documentation report.
As the report points out, “it was not the first time the Islamic Republic had executed thousands of its political opponents or even the first time the regime had executed its opponents en masse.” But, the report continues, the massacre carried out in 1988 “stands out for the systematic way in which it was planned and carried out, the short time period in which it took place throughout the country, the arbitrary method used to determine victims, the sheer number of victims, and the fact that the regime took extensive measures to keep the executions secret and continues to deny that they took place.”
Before the revolution, says lawyer Seifzadeh, “interrogators used various labels such as ‘saboteur’, ‘Islamic Marxist’, ‘Communist’ and ‘traitor” against the accused. After the revolution, other labels, ‘anti-revolutionary’ and ‘anti-Islam,’ were added to the list.”
Another period that stands out in terms of illegal interrogations is following the pro-reform protests in 2009.
But there is no easy way to put a stop to the practice of illegal interrogation in Iran. As Seifzadeh points out, the law cannot be reformed without the approval of the judiciary and the subsequent abolishment of illegal courts — including Revolutionary Courts and the Special Court for Clerics.
An Improving Situation — At Least in Theory?
In 2013, parliament introduced changes to the Code of Criminal Procedure – changes that according to Seifzadeh have gone some way to improving the situation. “Before, the interrogator could transfer some of his duties to law enforcement agents, including agents of the Intelligence Service,” he says. “But under the new code, the interrogator is obliged to carry out the task of interrogation himself; hence Intelligence Service agents are no longer allowed to interrogate the accused; rather, as law enforcement agents, they can only follow the orders of the interrogator, and under the supervision and training of a competent judicial authority, carry out tasks such as gathering evidence or identifying the accused and preventing the accused from escaping.”
According to Article 28 of the Code of the Criminal Procedure, law enforcement agents, under the supervision and training of a judicial authority, can only conduct acts such as preliminary investigations, deliver court orders and implement judicial decisions. They cannot, Seifzadeh says, carry out interrogations.
“The agents of the Intelligence Service are not considered law enforcement agents under the law,” says Iranian lawyer Musa Barzin Khalifeloo, who is based in Turkey. He says that although Article 29(B) refers to Intelligence Ministry agents as specific law enforcement officials, they are limited in their authority. For example, Barzin says that Article 4 of the Law on the Establishment of the Ministry of Intelligence stipulates that ministry agents are only considered to be law enforcement agents when it comes to the discovery of a crime — meaning that their role in law enforcement does not extend to interrogation.
But Barzin points out an important change in the law when it comes to national security crimes. In 1994, the judiciary issued a bylaw stipulating that intelligence service agents act as law enforcement agents. “This bylaw was widely criticized,” he says. Soon after, the office of the judiciary issued advisories that said these agents should not be given further powers when it came to national security crimes. “Now judicial authorities cannot assign them with the task of interrogation — rather, intelligence agents can only give their opinions on a case as security experts.”
Another Iranian lawyer, Mahnaz Parakand, holds a different view. Parakand, who is now based in Norway, believes Intelligence Service agents can operate as law enforcers, but says they can only carry out interrogations if the initial interrogator assigns them to a case. In addition, agents must complete required training before taking on the specific role of enforcing the law. Only under these circumstances, Parakand says, can intelligence agents carry out interrogations.
Whether Intelligence Service agents are authorized to interrogate or not is a point that lawyers continue to dispute among themselves. But what is not disputed is the fact that whoever is carrying out interrogations must observe the law, which is very clear on the matter. When it comes to the rights of the accused, interrogation should follow the guidelines set out, and those interrogated have the right to be free of intimidation and to remain silent when asked to confess. Despite this, in Iran, these rights are repeatedly and systematically violated. Iranian officials routinely use illegal interrogations as a weapon of repression, intimidation, and torture.