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IRAN: Picnicking Outside Evin Prison

Sara Farhang

TEHRAN, Jul 2 2009 (IPS) - Outside the gates of Tehran's notorious Evin prison, hundreds wait impatiently – some with blankets spread out in the parking lot on the street below, making time for dinner.

The improvised picnic area has become a second home to the families of those arrested in the massive roundups that accompanied Iran's post-election unrest. They were jailed both before and during the authorities' ongoing violent crackdown, which started a week after protests swelled in the wake of the Jun. 12 disputed polls.

Since the crackdown, continuing political uncertainty and scenes like the one outside Evin are potent lingering reminders that Iran is a changed place from nearly three weeks ago, when incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the landslide winner of the disputed election.

Shocked at a lopsided result many considered impossible, Iranians took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands – an unprecedented challenge to the authorities of the 30-year-old Islamic Republic. The government met that challenge with violence that has left 17 dead by the official tally.

Now, the families of the detained wait nightly in anticipation of the release of their loved ones.

A white and green minivan pulls up with two soldiers in their early twenties, among thousands of young Iranian men who have to serve mandatory military duty, unfortunately for them during a time of turmoil.

The van is now painted with "Police Station No. 109", instead of its usual markings identifying it as the "Morality Police". The morality vans, which up until the time of the protests were filled with police in charge of arresting women with inappropriate Islamic dress, have now been put to a more compelling use by local police stations tasked with arresting protesters.

In another parking lot directly below Evin prison, a small crowd leans on their cars, wearily waiting by a long and steep set of stairs leading to a single iron door from which prisoners are released. Every time the door opens, those waiting in the surrounding area look hopefully toward it.

A woman sitting at the foot of her car, in what seems to be an uncomfortable attempt at a picnic, explains that she is waiting for her husband.

"He was arrested 12 days ago," she says. "His only crime is that we live near Azadi Square" – a site of massive protests. "We were on our way home from a funeral when he was pulled out of the car and arrested. They claimed that he had planned to attend the protest, but that was not the case."

"We posted bail at the Revolutionary Courts yesterday," she said. "They told me he would be released last night, but here I am again, still waiting."

Some prisoners have begun to trickle out, but the pace is erratic.

"One set of prisoners have already been released, two more sets should be released tonight," says Arman, a 30-year-old man, who is there because his cousin was arrested during a spontaneous protest which broke out in their well-to-do neighbourhood in Yousefabad the day following the elections.

"Apparently, last night 160 prisoners were released. But for now officials are eating their dinner and saying their nightly prayers, so we have to wait," he said.

According to Arman, a list of names of those scheduled to be released is announced at the Revolutionary Courts, where families play yet another game of endless waiting and navigate a maze of bureaucratic red tape.

Family members go to the courts during the day, waiting from early morning until the afternoon, hoping to gain any information at all about their loved ones, some of whom have simply disappeared.

"If the name of your loved one is announced, then you are allowed to post bail and they will be released, eventually," says Arman. "According to the courts, my cousin is among 230 individuals who won't be released anytime soon, but I come here anyway."

The lists are not up-to-date and, at most, include only those who have been transferred to Evin – not information on the whereabouts of citizens arrested and detained in other locations. Most of those detained as a result of their political, human rights or journalistic activities do not appear on the lists, despite the fact that many are held in ward 209 of Evin, which is managed by the Intelligence Ministry.

Nearly 60 sheets of paper posted on the doors of the prison contain approximately 1,200 names. Nearby, security guards are stationed during the day to respond to questions.

A well-dressed woman approaches the lists and asks if this correspondent is looking for a name of a loved one.

"It took five days for my son's name to appear on the list," she says. "I almost died of worry. I didn't know if he was dead or alive. He had simply disappeared."

In the absence of lawyers, any accountable system, or rule of law, those who are caught up in the system guide one another through the crisis, which has afflicted families – including the old and young, rich and poor, rural and urban.

"Never could Iranian human rights activists have educated the masses about the vast abuse of human rights by Iranian security forces and the revolutionary courts, so broadly," says Saeed a human rights activist. "Now that so many individuals are caught up in this unaccountable system, the public will finally know of the injustices that occur in this country."

The door opens again, and three young men in their mid-twenties exit. They sport full black beards and wear white shirts which hang loosely over their trousers – typical garb for those referred to as "hezbollahis" and who are fast recruits for the basij and the intelligence ministry.

Though they are unrelated, the men are referred to as "brothers" – the customary term adopted to refer to the pious supporters of the Islamic Revolution, which has now taken on an ironic and bitter meaning referring to those who use Islam as their justification to oppress the public.

The "brothers" descend the steep stairs toward their cars and keep their gaze focused on each other. It is obvious that they are interrogators, perhaps with the Intelligence Ministry – though since the unrest it is unclear exactly which security agency has taken charge of detentions and interrogations at Evin.

A group of four men wearing wide-legged trousers stands nearby. It is readily apparent that they are not from Tehran.

"We are from Kurdistan," a younger man says. "My brother was arrested 10 days ago. He is a student activist at Tehran University. We didn't even know how and when he was arrested. His friends called to let us know, so we drove to Tehran to follow up on his situation."

The detainee's father explains that they have posted bail and he should be released soon.

"But we aren't sure if it will be tonight," he says. "First we tried to put up a business license as collateral, which the courts refused. Finally, we got a high government official to provide a personal guarantee for his release."

The father goes on to explain that, like himself, the government official, also Kurdish, is a Principalist, belonging to Ahmadinejad's party. The father smiles and glances down as he explains the situation – it's not clear if he's joking or just embarrassed about his political affiliation, given the detention of his son and other student activists brutally attacked in their dormitories.

"It is true. My father voted for Ahmadinejad, but I voted for [Reformist candidate Mehdi] Karroubi," says the son.

"[Opposition leader and candidate Mir Hossein] Moussavi and Karroubi had the major votes of the Kurdish communities," the embarrassed father explains.

But his activist son may be behind bars for a while.

"Most student, political and social activists won't be released so quickly," says Saeed, the rights activist. "We fear that if the protest by the public dies down, many of them could even be tried and sentenced to death by execution."

Driving away from the prison through a neighbourhood within earshot of Evin, there are cries of protest from rooftops and balconies. Those yelling "Allah-o-Akbar" (god is great) and "death to the dictator" are hidden by the darkness of the night.

But as if realising what is at stake, the sounds of defiance in this neighbourhood – so near the notorious prison – are especially loud.

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