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Iranian prisoners’ families left in dark

Defined charges, access to lawyer often elusive

By Scheherezade Faramarzi
Associated Press / September 20, 2009

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BEIRUT - The middle-aged woman demanded to know the fate of her daughter, Fariba Pajooh, who had been picked up by three Intelligence Ministry agents a few days earlier.

“She will be with us for a few days,’’ the prosecutor told her calmly. “Don’t worry, she’s in a good place.’’

“What’s the charge against her?’’ the mother asked.

“It’s said she had some foreign connection,’’ the prosecutor replied vaguely.

More than a month later, reformist journalist Pajooh, 29, is still in jail, along with thousands of others in Iran, and her mother does not know why. Her mother spoke to the Associated Press in a phone interview from Tehran on condition that she be referred to as Mrs. Pajooh to protect herself.

Mrs. Pajooh, her husband, her brother, and the prisoner’s husband take turns every day visiting the General Prosecutor’s Office, or Dadsara, in the hope of finding a clue as to why their loved one was arrested Aug. 28 and whether she would be released anytime soon. Their ordeal offers a glimpse into the attempts of thousands of families to find loved ones who were detained in the crackdown after the disputed June 12 presidential election.

Often without lawyers, an accountable system, or rule of law, families are forced to handle the nightmare of a complicated legal bureaucracy on their own. They very rarely have information about the whereabouts, health, or conditions of their loved ones. And the prisoners are denied medical care and legal representation and do not know on what charges they have been arrested.

Fariba Pajooh’s lawyer, Nemat Ahmadi, has not seen his client. Ahmadi was out of town when Fariba was arrested. When he returned a week later, there was not much he could do.

“If there was at least a trusted intermediary, such as a lawyer, who would assure us that Fariba is OK, would tell us not to worry and that her case is taking its legal course, then we’d be fine. We wouldn’t be in the dark,’’ said Mrs. Pajooh, 45.

On Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m., three officials from the Ministry of Intelligence came to Pajooh’s home. They searched the house and half an hour later left with Fariba.

Friends advised Mrs. Pajooh to keep calm, and to get word out to channels that were holding Fariba to show she had family looking for her. Fariba’s husband went to see a conservative member of Parliament for advice. The family got in touch with other friends and acquaintances, anyone they thought might have some influence.

Two days after the arrest, the family received first word from their daughter. Three women had seen Fariba brought to the Dadsara that morning. Fariba had told them she was in solitary confinement in Section 209 of the Evin Prison, controlled by the Intelligence Ministry.

She also allegedly said she was being pressured to confess to espionage and immoral behavior and that she had been threatened with execution if she refused.

Hamid Reza, a relative of Fariba, said the officials at the Dadsara give false hope to families by telling them there’s no need to follow up on the cases of their loved ones, and not to say anything to anyone.

Despite its futility, Mrs. Pajooh keeps going there. “Usually if you pursue something, persist in it, and keep going - as long as you don’t provoke him - it’s effective,’’ she explained.