2009/08/31

Iran: Admission of Prisoner Abuse

In what may be the first admission that a prisoner died from abuse by Iranian prison authorities in the wake of post election unrest, a semi-official news service reported Monday that the son of an adviser to a prominent conservative politician died of “physical stress, conditions of imprisonment, repeated blows and harsh physical treatment.”

The report, by the Mehr News Agency, quoted “informed sources” saying that the medical examiner determined Mohsen Ruholamini, 25, died from abuse and neglect after being held in the Kahrizak detention center and then transferred to Evin prison under “unsuitable conditions.” He was one of hundreds of people arrested after mass protests swept major Iranian cities after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed a landslide victory in June and one of scores who died.

“As a result of his poor physical condition, at the end of the journey, and after a delay of 70 minutes in transferring him to hospital, he unfortunately died,” said the report by Mehr, which has close ties to conservatives.

The apparent admission of abuse appears to fit squarely with the recent strategy of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, of trying to calm the political crisis that has refused to let up, and to try to restore some of his lost credibility, political analysts said. As a religious and civil leader, he is supposed to be seen as above the political fray and as the embodiment of justice, qualities that analysts and reform supporters say were badly compromised when he sided with the president during the crisis.

The admission — if it is confirmed and leads to punishment — could also shore up his support among senior clerics and pragmatic conservative politicians upset about the treatment of prisoners, President Ahmadinejad’s attempts to consolidate power and the Supreme Leader’s handling of the post-election crisis. Mr. Ruholamini’s case helped galvanize their anger.

Mr. Ruholamini’s father Adolhossein, was a senior political adviser to Mohsen Rezai, a defeated presidential candidate and former commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guards. Authorities had told the elder Mr. Ruholamini on Aug. 9 that his son died from meningitis. But Mr. Ruholamini, who leads a prestigious scientific center in Tehran, later said he found his son’s bloodied and bruised body in a morgue.

On Sunday, one day before the report was released by Mehr, Mr. Ruholamini had a private meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei, where he was assured that those responsible would be held accountable, even if they were part of the system, according to Iranian news services.

If the Mehr report is officially confirmed, it could pave the way for the arrest and conviction of government agents — perhaps even relatively high ranking prison officials, a step that may be necessary to restore confidence among senior clerics and pragmatic conservatives, political analysts said.
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When the government tried to silence the post-election conflict through arrests and trials and intimidation, the crisis grew more heated amid a steady stream of charges, including that male and female prisoners had been raped and sodomized, that bodies had been buried in secret graves and that bruised and contorted corpses were being turned over to families.

Leaders of the reform movement said that at least 69 people were killed during the post election crackdown, while the government reported 30 had died.

The president and his allies in the police force, prison system and military, have consistently denied all charges of abuse, and they repeated those denials this week. However, Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the closure of Kahrizak prison, where several prisoners died, and authorities ordered an investigation into the deaths there.

But with the political crisis refusing to subside, and the credibility of the Islamic Republic’s system of governance questioned by the general public and the clerical elite, the parliament has launched two investigations into charges of prisoner abuse and the Supreme Leader shifted course, political analysts said.

In what analysts call an attempt to calm the concerns of his more pragmatic conservative allies and senior clerics, the Supreme Leader recently said that he does not believe the opposition had been conspiring with foreign enemies — undercutting the most serious charges against former officials, journalists and academics that have been leveled by Mr. Ahmadinejad and his government.

And in another sign of efforts to soften the edges of the crackdown directed by the president, the judiciary — headed by a rival of Mr. Ahmadinejad — on Sunday released Hamzeh Ghalebi, a prominent member of the Islamic Iran Participation Front who was very close to reform leader and presidential candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, according to Parleman News. Mr. Ghalebi’s health had deteriorated after almost 60 days in solitary confinement and like others, he had been forced to confess, according to a Web site affiliated with Mr. Moussavi.

Another element of the leader’s recalibration was spelled out Wednesday, in a meeting with university students, when he vowed that torture and abuse would not go unpunished. MICHAEL SLACKMAN in nytimes.com, August 31

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