Human Rights Quarterly 24.1 (2002) 290-297
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Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran
Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran by Ervand Abrahamian (1999).
Since the publication of his Iran Between Two Revolutions in 1982, Abrahamian has become one of the most influential historians of modern Iran. This latest book is also a valuable contribution to the growing field of international human rights studies. It tells the stories of political prisons, tortures, confessions, and recantations in the twentieth century. During this time Iran changed from a traditional society under the Qajar dynasty, 1797-1925, to a modernizing one under the Pahlavi dynasty, 1925-1979, and finally to a strange hybrid under the Shiite Ayatollahs after 1979.
Nineteenth century Iran was a Shiite society with a monarchical tradition, which meant that the Shahs ruled autocratically, allowing the Shiite clerics only as much authority as they needed to manage the religious and personal affairs of their subjects. Abrahamian observes that in traditional Iran punishment was exacted immediately by inflicting physical torment and violent death. Hardly anyone was sentenced to prison. Judicial torture taking place behind closed doors was a part of the [End Page 290] process that established the guilt of the accused. Then, the arrival of European-style modernity coincided with the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty, although the socio-political grounds were already prepared during the last decades of Qajar rule. For the first time in Iranian history, Reza Shah's extensive judicial reforms made permanent prisons a bureaucratic necessity. As the trappings of a modern state emerged, the new elite saw torture and corporal punishments as relics from medieval times. 1 Public executions stopped in Tehran. "It should be noted that the Pahlavi regime--unlike previous dynasties of Iran--did not need to impress the public with gruesome spectacles. Now the state was armed with the full machinery of modern government--a central bureaucracy, a standing army, and a national police force." 2
Reza Shah's rule succeeded in neutralizing the progressive political activism that had lingered on since the constitutional revolution (1905-1911). By 1940, the regime's main political prison held only some 200 prisoners, including the future leaders of the Tudeh Party who were called the Fifty-Three. Their acknowledged leader, Dr. Taqi Arani, had received his higher education in Weimar Germany, became a Marxist, returned to Iran in 1930 and ended up in prison for "Marxist sedition" in 1938. His four-hour self-defense in court, criticizing Reza Shah's regime for its violations of due process of law and fundamental civil liberties, became a cause célèbre, inspiring future Iranian leftists. The political police did not know that they were holding several men whose incarceration would give them the needed heroic aura to become the esteemed founders of a significant leftist political party after Reza Shah's abdication.
Abrahamian offers biographical sketches of these ideologically committed Marxists. None of the Fifty-Three was executed, and after the initial harsh interrogations, which accompanied physical pressure, the prisoners settled into the routine prison life. Those who had come from privileged families "were treated with kid gloves." 3 The political prison was uncomfortable, but it lacked all the brutalities associated with Third World military dictatorships during the second half of the twentieth century. As for the Fifty-Three, the lack of harsh treatments was due to their family connection and the fact that they bribed the jailers, whom one prisoner described as "decent folk" without decent salaries. 4 One of Abrahamian's explanations for the absence of torture in prison directly relates to his main argument: The regime did not need torture, since it faced no communist-inspired armed struggle that could necessitate extracting security information. "And it was not in the business of extracting recantations and winning over hearts and minds . . . [Reza Shah] was more interested in keeping subjects passive and outwardly obedient than in mobilizing them and boring holes into their minds. Reza Shah had created a military monarchy--not an ideologically charged autocracy." 5