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A look inside Iran's notorious Evin prison

Niloofar Gholami
October 20, 2022

A deadly fire at Tehran's Evin prison amid ongoing social upheaval has drawn focus to human rights abuses behind its walls. DW spoke to two former prisoners about their time in Iran's most notorious jail.

A charred area of Evin prison
The charred aftermath of the fire which destroyed part of Evin prison in TehranImage: WANA NEWS AGENCY via REUTERS

Evin prison in the Iranian capital Tehran has earned a notorious reputation for human rights abuses and mistreatment of political prisoners. Last week, a fire ripped through a section of the prison and killed at least eight prisoners.   

Anoosheh Ashoori is a British-Iranian businessman who was locked up for more than four years at Evin, two of which he spent in the section of the jail where Iranian authorities said the fire broke out.  

He was arrested in 2017 while visiting his mother in Iran, on charges of "spying for Israel."   

"I was in total shock. I was numb from head to toe. I didn't know what was going on, and I was taken blindfolded," he said about his arrest.   

He told DW about the squalid conditions and abuse he suffered during his detainment in ward 7, hall 12, of Evin prison.   

"The situation in hall 12 was extremely dire. We struggled with bed bugs, cockroaches, huge rats, and foul food," he said. Up to 70 people were housed in hall 12 in four rooms, he added.   

He recalled a large area, known as the "cultural center" in the basement of ward 7, which used to house a swimming pool, but was converted into a garment factory where inmates worked on sewing machines to make prison uniforms.   

Ashoori said it is quite possible the fire broke out in the sewing room, but it is impossible to be certain.   

He remembers the metal staircase outside the cultural center that led up to a beautiful viewpoint.  

"Sometimes we used to take our lunch there because that is one of the very few places where you can see the Alborz Mountains north of Tehran," he said.  

A staircase in Evin prison after a fire
This staircase in Evin prison is etched in Ashoori's memoryImage: Irna

'Psychological torture' 

However, the lowest point of Ashoori's experience at Evin prison were the 45 days he spent in solitary confinement, experiencing what he described as "psychological torture."   

"I had one main interrogator, but most of the time, I could feel the presence of others in those small interrogation rooms," he said.   

"They were making threats that they would harm my family members," he added.

Ashoori said a flood light was kept on all day and night, preventing him from sleeping. He said he could hear constant cries coming from the other cells, and that the pain, and fear for his family's safety, forced him to attempt suicide.   

"I thought, perhaps, the best way is that if I don't exist, the threat will be eradicated," he said.   

Ashoori also went on a 17-day hunger strike to protest his unjust arrest.  

In March 2022, Ashoori was released from Evin prison after the British government paid 400 million pounds (€461 million, $453 million) debt to the Iranian regime. He was released along with another dual national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.  

He is currently writing a book about his experience in the jail and to raise awareness of the dire human rights situation in Iran.   

On October 2, Ashoori ran the London Marathon, and wore an Amnesty International poster on his chest, and carried flyers drawing attention to Iran's women's rights movement.  

"As I was running, I was imagining all those friends who used to run with me in that small prison yard as if they were next to me. I was just sort of talking loudly to them. I cannot explain the feeling," he said.  

"How painful that feeling is because those people are still going through the same suffering without knowing when they will be released," he added.  

Upon hearing about the fires, Ashoori said his mind and his heart are focused on those people he knew during his time at Evin prison.   

"I am not going to be quiet until all of them are released and they are back home with their families," he said.   

Anoosheh Ashoori holds up a sign next to daughter Elika Ashoori in London
Anoosheh Ashoori completed the London Marathon with Evin prison on his mindImage: privat

Blindfolded and kidnapped on the way to the airport

Even before the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Evin prison was used for locking up political prisoners, foreigners and dual nationals.   

As waves of protest for personal freedoms continue in Iran following the death of a young woman in the custody of the "morality police" for not properly wearing a hijab, or Islamic headscarf, more and more people are being put behind bars.   

Amid the unrest, Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman who was jailed at Evin prison in 2015, recalls his time there, and told DW he imagines a day when those held in the jail "will be freed by protesters."   

Zakka told DW he was kidnapped by a group of men while he was on his way to the airport after speaking at a women and family affairs conference in Tehran on the invitation of the Iranian government.   

"I didn't speak the language, I didn't know what the hell is going on," he said.   

He spent four years in Evin prison, accused of spying for the US, where he is a permanent resident. He said ward 7 of the prison was overcrowded, with 20 people sharing a 5-square-meter room.   

Authorities wanted him to make a TV confession, but he refused.  

"The interrogator came every six weeks, asking if I had anything to say, and I'd say no, and I would be sent back."  

A fire damaged prison
Authorities have not yet specified what caused the fire at Evin prison Image: KOOSHA MAHSHID FALAHI/MIZAN/AFP/Getty Images

However, Zakka said sometimes the interrogations would be more violent.   

"When you don't answer their questions, they make you stand or sit in an uncomfortable position until you get tired and faint… Then they start walking around talking to each other, and step on your hand," he said.   

'I would dream of the walls falling'

Zakka also spent 18 months in solitary confinement, and said he went on multiple hunger strikes to protest his imprisonment.   

Zakka said he was kept in a dirty 8-square-meter room with the light always on.   

"You don't have anything. You have just something like a carpet and a blanket to cover yourself. We got all kinds of infections because most of these pillows and blankets are dirty and are infested with insects," he said.   

"I remember they took me in the middle of the night. I couldn't talk to anybody. It was cold in October and November and we were not allowed to have socks. We had only these flip-flops, even when we wanted to walk outside. It was such an ugly experience.” Zakka added.  

In June 2019, the Iranian government released Zakka after a request from Lebanese President Michel Aoun, which followed years of international advocacy for his freedom.   

Nizar Zakka has since established a prisoner advocacy NGO "Hostage Aid Worldwide," along with a group of former political prisoners "to make sure what happened to them will not happen to anyone else."   

"When I was in Evin, I would dream maybe a big fire will happen, maybe a big earthquake will happen, and all these walls will fall, and we can all run away and go back home," Zakka said.   

"I hope this dream will come true, and all these people will be freed by the protesters one day soon." 

Evin prison incident 'is part of what is going on in the streets'

Edited by: Wesley Rahn