Accused of spying: journalist Iason Athanasiadis tells of his time in Iranian jail
The slap across my jaw from behind me made my ears sting red with anger and embarrassment. I was being punished for daring to glance around the room where I was being questioned – accused of being a spy for Britain.
A few days earlier I had been brought, blindfolded, to the heart of Evin Prison, to begin what my captors believed would be the simple process of establishing my guilt. I was told to sit down, and keep facing the bare wall in front of me, before my blindfold was removed.
On a sheet of official notepaper I was to scribble answers to my interrogator’s questions. What had I been doing in the days since the disputed Iranian election? Who were my contacts? Who had I interviewed and what had they told me?
When he stepped outside to talk to intelligence ministry colleagues, I briefly craned my neck to see whether the interrogation suite was equipped with a camera. It was a mistake: quick as a flash the official was back, and I was being punished for my disobedience.
My face still smarting, I whirled round to confront him. It was a visceral reaction and the only time in a week of almost daily interrogations that I stared straight into the face of one of my captors. What I saw was not reassuring. A scruffy white-flecked beard, a contemptuous mouth curling to reveal a flash of gold fillings, and eyes fixed at me in white anger.
“Didn’t I tell you never to turn around?” he snapped. “Now turn away from me.”
My first interrogator was like that. Sometimes his carefully cultivated voice oozed false sympathy. Occasionally, his solicitousness appeared downright sarcastic. When I refused to reveal the names of my Iranian contacts, he assured me that they need not fear. “They are fellow Iranian citizens like myself, Mr Iason,” he purred. “Why would I ever hurt my own flesh and blood?”
At other times he flew into blind rages, prodding me aggressively in the back while making a point – perhaps about the perfidy of supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate who is still disputing the outcome of the election.
He may have been angry because one of his female relatives had been struck by a stone during the rioting. Or perhaps he was simply angry because I represented the West.
“You think you’re treated so badly,” he snapped at me, “but what is our treatment in London or Heathrow? Every time in that airport it is four or five hours interrogation for us.”
In fact my background is more complex. Born in Greece to historian parents who met at Oxford University – my father English, my mother Greek – my childhood was spent surrounded by the paraphernalia of the East. I am a citizen of both Greece and Britain, but have spent little time in the UK.
At university I studied Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, then worked in Egypt, Syria and Yemen as a journalist – before moving to Iran in 2004, to study for an MA.
I was there in 2005 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept from nowhere to win the presidency, and I returned to Tehran last month as an accredited journalist to watch him apparently sweep the 2009 election again.
Tehran was a city on edge on election day, and in the days that followed smoke and teargas mingled with cloud from the unseasonally stormy weather. But the following Wednesday I had to leave, with just hours to spare on my seven day visa. Just past passport control came the moment that every reporter dreads. “Please follow me,” said a man wearing a brown shirt and jacket. “You won’t be travelling tonight.”
Two of his colleagues quickly appeared. One flashed me a threatening grin as he shook my hand; the other just regarded me with contempt. “Where are we going?” I demanded. They had no arrest warrant. “For a long talk,” the first man crooned.
Disappearing into the clutches of the intelligence ministry was not a desirable prospect. I had to get word out of my arrest. I dropped on to the floor, hung on tight to my camera and laptop bags and began shouting that I was a Greek journalist being placed under arrest.
My guards’ violent response – putting me into a neck hold while they hauled me off, punching all the way – produced screams of pain which resounded around the terminal, but at least my detention had been noticed.
I was driven straight to Evin Prison, the bête noire of liberal Iranian dissidents. Its current guests include pro-Mousavi politicians, intellectuals, activists and a growing number of journalists. But I was the first non-Iranian journalist taken there in living memory. In arresting me, the Iranians had broken through a psychological barrier. Soon afterwards they would pick up a 23 year old French teacher, also accusing her of espionage.
Old Mercedes buses trundled through the metal gates, carrying tired and bloodied protesters who had been beaten and then arrested. But I was not destined for their overcrowded cells. Instead, I was blindfolded before being taken into a windowless building: Evin’s notorious Section 209, the part of the prison wholly controlled by the Intelligence Ministry.
My questioning over the next three weeks was haphazard: my interrogators seemed puzzled by me and my grasp of Farsi, and wholly ignorant of my activities during the three years I had lived, with official blessing, in Iran. Gradually their questions became less specific and more philosophical – and, as the violence against me ceased, time became my greatest enemy.
In a cell which remained brightly lit 24 hours a day, I was allowed no reading material, no radio and no other kind of distraction – except a well-thumbed copy of the Koran.
Inside it I discovered an aphorism written in Arabic: “Shackled in chains without guilt; except a tendency towards the fields of jihad.” On the wall, the same hand had written: “I seek recourse in Allah from idiots and stupidity.”
Eventually, as my interrogators conceded that perhaps I was not, after all, a spy, I was moved to one of Evin’s prisoner processing centres. Rows of blindfolded men sat cross-legged in corridors, some facing the wall, as officials dashed in and out of offices or pulled prisoners out for questioning.
I saw men in the communal showers, heard the hubbub of voices from interrogation rooms and noted the doorways of officials’ carpeted rooms, a jumble of slippers and sandals. Intelligence officers pored over surveillance photos from the demonstrations, trying to identify repeat offenders.
Then, late on July 5, the door of my cell clicked open. Three jailers stood there. “It’s over,” one of them said.
Exhilarated, I kissed all three before being led, blindfolded again, past rows of my fellow inmates’ cell and through the administrative section – to be handed back my clothes, my telephone and my laptop.
In the police station at the gate of Evin crowds of rioters, criminals and over-perfumed prostitutes swathed in chadors waited. I was photographed, fingerprinted and taken into a car. My guard for the trip to the airport was the portly man who had manhandled me on the night of my arrest. He flashed me a reconciliatory smile.
The streets to the airport were gridlocked with traffic and all protest appeared to have died down.
I was met by the Greek ambassador, Nikos Garilidis, whose intervention helped speed my release. But the moment he left, the atmosphere changed – and I found myself arrested again.
Before the officials could take my telephone this time, I called Mr Garilidis, who was furious. I had to spend a further night in a jail cell at the airport, followed by more negotiations next day – until I was finally safely on board an Iran Air flight to Dubai.
As I accepted a plastic-wrapped rose from a headscarfed stewardess, I wondered if I would ever dare to return to Tehran. That was what my interrogators had asked me, too – but my ambivalent answer had disappointed them.
“You shouldn’t be so negative about your experience,” the senior interrogator said.
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