Karun Prison, where line between humanity & barbarity are blurred
In a heart breaking, open letter written to Mohammad Javad Ardeshir Larijani, the Head of the Human Rights Council for Iran's Judiciary and top adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ziya Nabavi incarcerated student, deprived of the right to an education, paints a gut wrenching picture of the inhumane and unbearable conditions at Karun prison in the city of Ahvaz, stating that never before in his life had he heard about, read about or experienced anything quite like it.
Zia Nabavi was arrested on the night of June 14th, 2009, protesting the rigged presidential elections. He was sentenced to 15 years prison and sent to exile at Karun prison in January 2010 by the 26th branch of the Revolutionary Court presided over by Judge Pir Abbasi. His sentence was later reduced to 11 years by the Appeals Court; a sentence that is shocking given Ziya's calm and rational nature and given that his only crime was to stand up for students deprived of the right to an education. Ziya was also charged with collaboration with the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO - a terrorist organization in exile) and as a result sent to exile in Karun, a charge that he has vehemently and repeatedly denied to date. Zia has also expressed his aversion for the MKO on numerous occasions.
Zia Nabavi, incarcerated student deprived of an education is only 26 years old. He is enduring one of the most inhumane prisons in Iran. Though we continue to hope and dream that the prison conditions for all prisoners in Iran improve, we cannot turn our back on the great injustice endured by Zia Nabavi, one of the elite engineering students in Iran. If nothing else, we must demand that at minimum the terms of his incarceration be fair and the conditions humane.
The complete content of Seyed Zia Nabavi's letter to the head of the Human Rights Council for Iran's Judiciary is as follows:
To Mr. Mohammad Javad Ardeshir Larijani, Head of the Human Rights Council for Iran's Judiciary,
The letter you find before you has a long and detailed history. When I look back to the past, to October 2010 when I was first exiled to Karun prison, I realize how many moments I spent contemplate about writing such a letter. Of course it goes without saying that there is a significant difference between contemplating something and actually doing it - a state of uncertainty characteristic of human behavior, one that often creates doubt, suspicion and apprehension, rendering us ineffective. On a personal level, writing this letter was far from easy, for every time I took pen to paper with the intent to write a few lines of criticism, I kept questioning myself and whether it was the right thing to do. I kept wondering what the purpose of writing such a letter was and if the conditions could indeed ever change. I kept ruminating over what my role should be. Who was I to criticize? Was I capable of expressing my thoughts on paper? Did anything I have to say carry any weight?
Believe me when I say that in the months since my exile to Karun prison, I have often struggled with what I should do and how I should react in the face of the inhumane, unbearable and disastrous conditions at this prison. Of course, since my arrival, I have discussed the prison conditions with the Karun prison officials and judicial authorities, an act that has led to some positive results. The conditions in this prison are however, so utterly out of the realm of what is considered appropriate, that I doubt that things will be resolved even with the determination of the entire prison authority. We need a new approach and higher levels of authority in order to bring about the sorely needed changes.
I am fully aware that when reading this letter, your impression of the motives of the author will strongly determine your reaction. If I were to dare and put my hope in this letter having any positive effect, it would be with the knowledge that you would read this letter with an empathetic point of view; though I realize that your reaction to this letter is out of my hands, for frankly any effort on my part to defend my motives (motives that are unclear even to me), would be immoral and incorrect to say the least.
Perhaps it's best if you ignore my intentions altogether and look at it from a more objective point of view. I can guarantee if nothing else, that I have not exaggerated my account of the conditions at Karun prison and when describing the shortcomings, though I may have inadvertently omitted something, I have not added anything that does not exist. For exactly this reason, I have chosen to limit the content of this letter to my personal experiences of the conditions at ward 6 in Karun prison where I am currently incarcerated. It goes without saying that in addition to the general challenges associated with this ward, I am dealing with my own unique set of problems related to the shortcomings of my legal case. Since discussing my case is beyond the scope of this letter, I will not delve into that matter here.
The most significant challenge facing Karun prison in Ahvaz is the intense overcrowding and population density in for example ward 6, where I am currently incarcerated. Based on the number of beds available, this ward has a maximum capacity of 110 prisoners, but on average more than 300 prisoners are held in this ward at all times; in other words three times the maximum capacity allowed! Obviously, such a large population has a hard time fitting in the rooms even when standing, and as a result of the overcrowding many sleep on the floors ( I myself slept without a bed for six months) and a third of the prisoners sleep outside in the courtyard. This means that the entire area allocated to prisoners seeking fresh air is covered with prison blankets and large number of prisoners are forced to spend day and night outdoors regardless of the weather conditions - and when it rains at night, with nowhere else to sleep, many of these prisoners are forced to take refuge in the prison kitchen, bathroom or showers. Believe me when I say that even witnessing such an event is horrific. These days the only thing that makes me happy is knowing that I am alive and being grateful that I have never had to endure sleeping outside in the courtyard or in the bathroom like so many other prisoners.
The overcrowding at the prison has resulted in the commingling of prisoners and although ward 6 is referred to as a "security" ward, only 1/6 of the inmates are charged with political or security related crimes, the rest of the inmates are there on drug related charges or theft. Of course one of the three rooms at the prison has been assigned to political prisoners and prisoners incarcerated on security charges. However, with the exception of the sleeping quarters, all prisoners share the courtyard, kitchen, bathrooms and showers.
The prisoners charged with theft and drug related crimes have their own specific set of problems such as addiction, dangerous illnesses and other hygienic challenges, generally not witnessed with political prisoners, making proximately with these prisoners very difficult and problematic for political prisoners sharing the same space. It is worth mentioning that Ahvaz has a second prison dedicated to prisoners charged with financial crimes. This prison has much better hygienic conditions and would without a doubt have been a more logical location for the incarceration of political prisoners and prisoners charged with security crimes.
The courtyard where prisoners can take advantage of fresh air in ward 6 measures 8 x 15 meters and given the overcrowding in this ward this translates into 3 prisoners per square meter of area assigned for fresh air. As previously mentioned, as a result of lack of space and the over population, this area has been converted into living quarters for many prisoners. Only someone who has experience prison life understands what a torture it is to be deprived of fresh air and a small area for walking a few steps and stretching your legs. In addition, the outside courtyard is covered with a ceiling joist made of round iron bars that form a melded mesh. Though designed to prevent prisoners from escaping, it limits the amount of fresh air, resulting in extreme heat during the hellish summers in Ahvaz, converting the courtyard into an oven. Sadly there is also no shaded area, leaving many prisoners exposed to the strong sunlight. The mesh ceiling also deprives all prisoners of the one limited pleasure of peering into the blue sky, making them feel like caged animals.
The hygienic conditions at this prison are non existent. One can honestly not expect much more from such an old prison given the overcrowding and the types of prisoners it holds. Some of the prisoners who lived simple lives outside of prison, are used to these conditions and have easily adapted to their surroundings. These individuals never shower, do not change their clothes, do not use any kind of soap and walk around bare foot even when entering the bathrooms and other areas. Given their presence, I am sure you can begin to get a picture of the hygienic conditions in this ward. The bathrooms at ward 6 are also very dirty and sub par. In order to use the bathrooms or take a shower, one is forced to queue for hours on end. The running water in the shower is often cold. The bathroom sinks consist of 6 old, cold water taps in a row that drain into a highly contaminated waterway. Oddly enough this small area is used for multiple purposes. Just try and imagine a two meter area where someone is washing their hands, another drinking water, someone brushing their teeth, another washing dishes, someone cleaning himself for prayer, another shaving, someone washing and draining their rice, while another blows his nose - though a nauseating thought, for those who experience it, there is sadly no escape.
Another significant challenge at ward 6 is the sewage system. As a result of the inadequate sewage system, living with mice and cockroaches has become common place for prisoner at ward 6. A much more serious problem, however, is that the sewage system clogs once every so often and pours out into the courtyard covering the area where prisoners are sleeping; it's smell filling the entire outside area and lingering for hours on end. In all honesty, at times the contamination and stench is maddening, rendering a whiff of fresh air into an unattainable dream.
Although breathing the same air as so many other prisoners, filled with cigarette smoke in such a confined and limited environment is torture in itself, when mixed with the stench of sewage it becomes even more unbearable, particularly if it begins to rain heavily, turning the courtyard into a swimming pool and making it impossible to move back and forth to the bathrooms and toilets without a handcart. What is even more heart breaking is that despite the sewage covering the entire outside area, the prisoners are forced to once again lay out their belongings and sleep and eat in this area day in and out.
I won't speak of the food in prison as my observations may be interpreted as based on my personal preferences. Suffice to say that the honorable prison cook will not even bother himself with peeling the potatoes used in the food. The prison store rarely provides fresh fruit and on average after much conflict, at best, each prisoner is left with a kilo of fruit every six weeks, making illnesses caused by vitamin deficiency common place in prison.
Cooking in prison has its own set of challenges. Firstly, there are no refrigerators for storing fresh food, making it very challenging to cook, particularly during the warmer months. Although this problem did not exist in the past and apparently all prison refrigerators were removed after inspectors found drugs in one of them. Though the rationale is very similar to removing all cars from the street as a result of finding drugs in only one of them! The kitchen provided for cooking, apart from being dirty, is very small, approximately 3 square meters, making cooking in it questionable at best.
There are also many hardships when it comes to communication. For one thing, the prisoners have no access to newspapers or magazines and they are banned from receiving any from the outside world. The prison authorities also impose many restrictions on books. I personally have not been able to receive books that are of interest to me; books that are not controversial in any way as they are in the area of philosophy, physics and literature. When it comes to access to telephones, each prisoner in ward 6 has access to phones for only 3 minutes a week. It goes without saying that 3 minutes is insignificant for someone who is thousands of miles away from their loved ones. Even this insignificant amount of time, is taken away from all prisoners as a result of unforeseen circumstances, rendering prisoners incommunicado. I was been deprived of all telephone privileges at Karun prison for a long period of time and banned from leaving my sleep area and using the library at prison.
What occurs behind these prison walls is "indescribable" and impossible to convey! Until I was forced to live it, I had never in my life experienced such a thing, read about it or heard about anything quite like it. Such a prison has never been depicted in any movie or any book. It was inconceivable to me that such a place cold even exist! I suppose this tragedy stems from individuals being forced to spend every single living moment under such unbearable conditions, in a small, confined and contaminated environment, overcrowded with conflicting prisoners of all kinds. I have a hard time describing a place that lacks even fresh air or a small area where prisoners can take a few steps.
In the past months I have spent in this prison, I have sometimes spend night and day pondering on my thoughts and behavior; a process that has made me come to surprising conclusions. I feel as though my life is slowly drifting from one in which I live like a human to one in which I am being treated like an animal; the instinct for self preservation and the desire to survive having become my main drive and concern. It feels as though there is nothing else to worry about except to stay alive. When I leave my room, for example, I try very hard not to look at anyone, to avoid making eye contact. If anyone sleeping in the courtyard addresses me, I pretend as always not to hear their request and ignore them rudely. When in line for the showers or the use of toilets, I find myself fighting like prehistoric humans, while trying at all times to limit contact as much as possible. Believe me when I say that though I am not a picky person in the least bit, here I feel as though one must be fearful of even breathing the air. On winter nights, when I would stare at the prisoners sleeping exposed to the piercingly cold winter air, two or three squirming under one damp, dirty blanket, I was left shocked at my lack of pity and compassion for others. It felt as though I had completely accepted that this is and will always be the fate of the world and humanity at large. How can one be ethical in a place where humans don't have the courage, if only for one moment, to put themselves in the place of others?
Perhaps I have said enough... there is so much left to say, but given my fear that expressing them will only render this letter less effective, I will refrain from saying more... My hope in writing this letter is to bring the attention of the authorities to this catastrophic situation and in doing so improve the unbearable conditions at Karun prison; conditions so unfortunate that they can only be explained as "bordering between humanity and barbarity", living like a human versus living like an animal.
Karun prison, Ahvaz (South of Iran)
Translation by Banooye Sabz
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