Notorious prison’s demolition will destroy evidence of crimes against humanity, warns rights group

Notorious prison’s demolition will destroy evidence of crimes against humanity, warns rights group

A notorious prison outside Tehran is set to be demolished in an attempt by the Islamic Republic to destroy evidence of the crimes against humanity committed there, according to Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights.

Thousands of political prisoners were massacred at the Rajaei Shahr Prison in Karaj in the 1980s, and Iran Human Rights says that “destroying the evidence is without doubt one of the key motivations behind its closure”.

Rajaei Shahr will also have a permanent place in the history of Iran’s Christians, having housed many Iranian Christian prisoners of conscience over the years, such as Farshid Fathi, who was detained in a ward alongside dangerous criminals, and Ebrahim Firouzi, who was once beaten by the prison guards there for refusing to attend an appeal hearing because the court had not accepted new evidence submitted in his case.

The prison was also the scene of one of the most pivotal moments in the Iranian Church’s recent history, when in 2004 nine senior pastors of the Assemblies of God denomination were held for four nights in solitary confinement and pressured to accept numerous demands, such as no longer welcoming converts to their churches. 

According to one of the pastors who was detained, Farhad Sabokrooh, “this agreement later became the basis for the Ministry of Intelligence to close our churches”. 

“They argued that: ‘You didn’t adhere to the text of the 2004 agreement, and that’s why we closed your churches,’” the pastor explained in his Witness Statement, published last year.

Farhad with his wife, Shahnaz.

There are now just four Persian-speaking churches left in Iran – all Anglican – but even these have not been able to reopen since the Covid-19 pandemic, while no new members are permitted, meaning that across the four churches there are now fewer than 100 members and this number will only further decrease in the years to come.

“Your churches have no right to continue their activities,” the AoG pastors were told in 2004, explained Pastor Sabokrooh. “According to the 10-year plan that we are working on, all Evangelical churches, including all branches of the Assemblies of God, must stop their activities. 

“From now on, your churches don’t have the right to evangelise and advertise your beliefs, especially among Muslims; you don’t have the right to accept new members; you should inform the Ministry of Intelligence before doing any activity; you mustn’t baptise anyone; even if it is an Armenian or Assyrian [recognised as Christians] who is going to be baptised, you must inform the Ministry of Intelligence.

“We know many people come to your churches of their own accord, but you have no right to let them enter. Tell them, ‘The law has changed and you aren’t allowed to enter.’ If they insist, get a written commitment from them that they themselves must accept the consequences of coming to a church and know they may be summoned by the Ministry of Intelligence and questioned.

“Whether you like it or not, we are the leaders, the rulers of this country, and therefore we must know what is happening in the churches; this is our most natural right. We must know what decisions the churches make, what thoughts they have. This is an Islamic country, and we cannot accept that through the propaganda of churches Muslims become Christians and convert to Christianity. One of the ideals of our revolution is that the rest of the nations become Muslims; not that Muslims become Christians, which goes against the interests of the Islamic government!”

You can read the pastor’s full Witness Statement here.

The light was on 24 hours a day

Mani with his wife, Marjan.

Another Christian who spent 12 days in solitary confinement in Rajaei Shahr, Mohsen (Mani) Aliabady Ravari, described the conditions there in his Witness Statement.

“I was taken to a cell that was 3m x 3m, and had a little window with thin metal bars across it,” Mani explained. “On a raised platform in the cell there was a toilet and a shower. They gave me three blankets: one as a pillow, one as a blanket, and one to lie on. The light in the room was on 24 hours a day. Food was handed over through a small opening in the cell door.

“We had heard from some Christians that had previously been arrested and imprisoned about the kind of questions that Christians are asked during interrogations. They wanted us to be ready for that day.

Five days after my arrest, the interrogations began. For seven days I was interrogated, and some days not once but twice – at noon and in the afternoon. I was told with an insulting and mocking tone that one of my charges was that I was a member of ‘Evangelical Christianity’ and had been evangelising others and doing church activities. 

Ebrahim Firouzi was also detained in Rajaei Shahr.

“The interrogator was sometimes harsh and sometimes kind, so that he could reach his goals through various techniques. During one interrogation, there were several agents in the room, as well as the interrogator. During that interrogation, they didn’t remove my blindfold. They tried to use verses from the Quran and Hadiths to show that I had been deceived, and told me that when someone evangelised to me they had attacked my culture and religion.

“I spent 12 days in solitary confinement and one day in the general ward of the prison. On the last day of my imprisonment, I told an official that I would have to explain at my workplace where I had been for the past 13 days, so they handed me a letter with the prison’s letterhead, stating the date and duration of my detention, and the reason for my imprisonment. But there was no signature and no stamp. 

“In that letter they wrote my charges: ‘Actions against the security of the regime’, ‘Propaganda against the regime’, and ‘Smuggling illegal goods.’ As they had confiscated Bibles and many other Christian books from our home, they saw me as a smuggler, belonging to ‘Evangelical Christianity’, and the Bibles were the illegal goods.”

You can read Mani’s full Witness Statement here.

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