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.'"

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