Escape From Iran

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The story of Hooman Mousavi, who was born in a prison, and whose parents were executed for opposing the regime

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Hooman Musavi fled Iran upon being released from prison after several years of incarceration for "acting against national security." (RFE/RL)

A young prisoner sat blindfolded, facing a wall in Tehran's Evin prison. It was April 2010, nearly a year after the disputed presidential victory of Mahmud Ahmedinejad sparked massive street protests and thousands of arrests. The room was silent, but suddenly he heard a voice, closer than he would have expected.

"What's your name?"

"Hooman Musavi."

The prisoner felt a powerful blow to the back of his head. The man standing over him opened a briefcase and took out a pile of papers. "Sign them," he said. He struck the prisoner again, this time in the face.

"The session took 18 hours," says Musavi, 26, who recently fled Iran and shared his account of the experience with RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "The entire time, the interrogator threatened me and insisted I sign everything -- documents describing whom I had been in contact with, which demonstrations I had participated in, what reports and footage I had prepared, and to whom I had sent them."

Musavi, who had been arrested for participating in and documenting the Green Movement protests, cried throughout the incident. "I felt so much pressure," he says. Finally, the interrogation ended and guards took him back to his cell in the prison's infamous Section 209, the solitary confinement ward where he was to spend the next seven months.

Any relief at the interrogation ending was short-lived. Within minutes, two men had entered Musavi's cell and handcuffed his hands to a radiator affixed to the prison wall, so high that Musavi, already exhausted, could not sit down. As the hours passed, he watched as his hands turned purple from the pressure of the handcuffs and lack of blood.

Any relief at the interrogation ending was short-lived. Within minutes, two men had entered Musavi's cell and handcuffed his hands to a radiator affixed to the prison wall.

The Democracy Report "I was so weak, and the guard would open the cell door, put some food on the floor and close the door. I couldn't move a muscle, let alone reach for the food," he says. "I lost consciousness for some time, and when I came to, I panicked when I looked at my hands. They had turned black and purple by then. It was a very strange condition. My shoulders were numb; I couldn't move them."

A day later, guards entered his room and removed the handcuffs. Musavi fell to the ground, drained of all strength, as he felt the blood begin to flow back into his hands. The guards dragged him back to the interrogation room. The pile of papers had quadrupled. Musavi, desperate, said he was ready to sign whatever they put before him, but his hands were still too numb to hold a pen. So the guard brought an ink pad, and one by one, Musavi marked each piece of paper with a single fingerprint.
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Day after day the interrogations continued, much as they had since security agents had stormed his Tehran apartment on April 1, posing as gas repairmen. They kicked him in the stomach, handcuffed him from behind, and combed every inch of his home -- even the meat in his refrigerator -- before taking his computer, camera, and mobile phone to look for evidence of Musavi's participation in the postelection protests.

But it wasn't just Musavi's role in the Green Movement that had made him a target of the authorities. His family history had contributed as well. It was something his interrogator liked to remind him of, every day, as he returned him to his cell. "We're going to execute you," the man would say, in a voice that would make Musavi shiver. "Just like your mother and father."

Repeating History

Hooman Musavi was born in prison, on Yalda, the night of the winter solstice, in 1986.

A month earlier, his father had been arrested on charges of cooperating with the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), which had participated in a series of antiregime attacks in the 1970s and '80s and had fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

Musavi's father, a textile manufacturer in the city of Shiraz, had sold head scarves to female MKO members. He and an in-law were taken to the city's Adelabad prison and were executed within weeks. By then, Musavi's aunt and mother had been arrested as well. Musavi's mother, Haiedeh, gave birth in Adelabad, and Hooman spent the first two years of his life inside the prison.

"My aunt used to tell me how I was always sick during those two years; I cried the whole time," he says. "I had sores and often caught bad colds. Even when I got older those symptoms stayed with me because of the stress I had endured early on. My aunt said my mother stopped producing milk and she couldn't feed me. So some of the female inmates would give their food rations to women who were lactating and could still breastfeed children. I used to be fed by five or six different women there in order to keep me alive."
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In 1988, Musavi's mother was executed as part of a five-month wave of mass executions of political prisoners. "My mother was a very simple woman. She didn't even know what the ideals of organizations like the MKO were," he says. "She never gave up under interrogation; she remained faithful to my father until the last moment. She was executed for this very reason."

For the rest of his life, the shadow of his parents' executions hung over him. Two decades later, struggling to survive in Evin, Musavi began to share his interrogator's conviction that he would share his parents' fate.

"I was thinking they might come back and take me to the gallows at any moment," he says. "It had already happened to my family. I was raised with the understanding that innocent people can be captured and executed."

Lonely, but Never Alone

Musavi was raised by his aunt after she was released from prison. An older brother and sister had been divided between other relatives and lived far away, in Mahshahr and Tehran. His upbringing was difficult, marked by poverty and neglect. There was no fatherly hand on his shoulder, no motherly affection.

For years the young Musavi harbored a secret dream: "I wished that they would throw a birthday party for me and that someone would buy me a gift," he said. "But it never happened."

When attention came, it was unwelcome. Musavi was 12 when he received his first summons to the Shiraz division of the Intelligence Ministry. He had done nothing wrong to attract the gaze of the security services. In his words, he had simply reached the age when authorities saw fit to remind him of his family's history and urge him, firmly, to mind his manners.

"They questioned me and told me more about my family," he says. "When I entered high school, the interrogations became more frequent and they would always tell me not to follow politics. 'Fool around with girls, drink, use drugs -- do whatever you want, but don't get involved in politics. If you have the slightest political inclination we'll arrest you.'"

The warnings proved ineffective. After entering university in Qazvin to study industrial engineering, Musavi was called before the school's disciplinary committee numerous times for participating in student protests. "They would ask whether I prayed or why I was absent from visits to religious sites like Qom and Jamkaran. Questions that had nothing to do with the university and were meant to hurt me." Half a year before he was due to graduate -- and just a few days after the 2009 presidential election -- he was suspended.

'We Didn't Want Much'

Many claims of irregularities were made in the 2009 vote, which officially handed the incumbent Ahmadinejad a 62 percent win, with his reformist rival, Mir-Hossein Musavi, trailing with 34 percent. Outraged, hundreds of thousands of people flooded onto the streets of Iran to support Musavi and a second candidate, Mehdi Karrubi.

Hooman Musavi (no relation to the presidential candidate) was among the protesters, using his camera to shoot photographs and videos of the demonstrations in Iran. When the government responded with a forceful crackdown, dozens of protesters were killed and thousands, like Musavi, were arrested in the weeks and months that followed.

Looking back at the events, Musavi insists his activism had nothing to do with the remorse he still feels for his parents. His aim, he says, was purely rational. "We didn't want much," he says of himself and his fellow protesters. "We just wanted someone to answer our question -- what happened to the votes we had put in the ballot boxes?"

Friendship, Tears

After a few months in his tiny isolation cell, Musavi says he no longer feared his interrogators' threats of execution. To the contrary, he longed for it. "I would cry for hours in my cell, and ask God for them just to take me and execute me," he says. "Just to put an end to the situation."

After seven months Musavi got a reprieve of sorts, when he was moved out of solitary confinement and into Section 350, the ward reserved for political prisoners. Living conditions remained grim. But Musavi says after months of isolation he was happy to be with other prisoners -- especially former protesters like himself.

"They were dissidents of the regime or members of the Green Movement or prisoners of conscience, and there was so much sympathy," he says. "They gave me a jacket and a knit cap, and my morale began to improve. I really felt like I had no regrets about having gone onto the street to film the demonstrators, to help make sure the world heard their voices. It was a good feeling."
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Section 350 held some of Iran's most famous political prisoners, including Hoda Saber, a well-known journalist and activist who had been serving jail time off and on since 2000.

In June 2011, the 52-year-old Saber began a hunger strike to protest the death of a fellow activist. His health quickly failed, and he died just eight days later of a heart attack. Witnesses at Evin complained that prison authorities ignored Saber for hours after his chest pains began, even as he begged for help.

"Mr. Saber was losing weight every day and his situation deteriorated," Musavi recalls. "During the final days he was left in his bed and he could no longer see. He didn't recognize his fellow prisoners; his condition was very bad. No one attended to him; when he would lose consciousness we would take him to the prison clinic. But they wouldn't take him and he'd be returned after five minutes.

"The last time we took him to the clinic we didn't hear until the next day that he'd become a martyr at the hospital. When the news reached us, the 200 inmates in the ward, there wasn't a single person who wasn't crying. It was one of the worst days of our lives."

No Mercy

Nearly a year after Musavi's arrest, officials had still not scheduled his court hearing; each month, a prison authority renewed his arrest warrant in order to keep him in detention. Finally, in March 2011, he was taken to court for a closed-door session. His lawyer was barred from attending and the Revolutionary Court judge was preoccupied throughout by workmen who had been brought in to repair the air conditioning.

"He was quite resilient, but when we took him from the room it was like carrying a corpse."

The trial was over in 20 minutes. The judge, delivering the verdict, referred to Musavi as the son of antirevolutionaries and pronounced him guilty of acting against national security by participating in illegal gatherings and establishing contact with opposition satellite channels. His sentence: three years in prison, prohibition from all state universities, fines, and 74 lashes.

Another 16 months passed before Musavi was taken to be lashed. A total of 14 political prisoners were lashed that day: Musavi was the first. He had taken care to put on several layers of clothing, in the hope of dulling the pain. But a judge observing the proceedings ordered Musavi to strip down to a T-shirt.

"I was the first person to be lashed and I had the feeling that the soldier didn't know how to do his job," he says. "The lash consisted of three strands of leather woven together with a knot at the end, to make the tip very heavy and painful. When the soldier was lashing me, it hit me in the chest. My chest was purple, covered with bruises. My entire torso was swollen. I was doing my best not to moan or beg for mercy, but I asked: 'Why are you lashing my chest? You should hit me on the back.'"

The last prisoner in the group was a dentist who had been sentenced to nine years and 160 lashes for his satirical writing about religion. The remaining prisoners, already reeling from their own lashings, were forced to watch. The strokes of the lashes were so harsh that they peeled away his skin. Blood gushed from his wounds, and the man screamed in pain. Finally, it ended. 

"He was quite resilient, but when we took him from the room it was like carrying a corpse," Musavi says. "His condition was critical. None of the others bled from the lashings. Their skin wasn't cut, only bruised. But this man's body was bleeding in several different parts, and his skin was slashed open. We were all crying for him."

The 14 prisoners returned to the ward. No medical care was provided. The other prisoners brought bowls of water and strips of cotton to make compresses for their injuries. "It was if all the prisoners had been lashed," Musavi says. "Everyone felt crushed."

Escape and Uncertainty

In August 2012, Hooman Musavi was released after 2 1/2 years in prison.
But even once outside he continued to feel trapped by the thoughts of his fellow prisoners still held in Evin. He visited their relatives and went to see the graves of activists who had lost their lives in the Green Movement protests, including Neda Agha-Soltan, the student whose shooting death was captured on video and became a graphic symbol of the brutality of the government crackdown.

But even these quiet activities drew the attention of the security forces. Musavi's interrogator summoned him with a warning, reminding him of his months in solitary confinement and promising he would not escape the gallows again if he returned to prison a second time.

Left with no other option, Musavi fled the country, carrying only a small pack of possessions. (For his protection, his location has been left unstated.) He is uncertain what the future holds, but hopes that he will finally escape the destiny of the child, born and orphaned in prison, who could never outrun the Iranian regime.



This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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