Escape From Iran

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."
​​
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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