Victims and Witnesses
…Autumn 2016 Journey : A Daughter's Fight For the Memory of Slain Dissident Parents
Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation
January 4, 2017
On November 22, 1998, Parastu Foruhar’s parents Dariush and Parvaneh were murdered in the course of the Chain Murders, a series of covert assassinations conducted by agents close to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. Since that time, Iranian official have consistently worked to silence her demands for truth, justice, and the right to grieve and remember. “… Autumn Journey 2016,” Foruhar’s newly-penned personal account, illustrates her resilience in the face of a barrage of tactics – from trumped-up legal charges to physical intimidation – which state agents have used against her. Her story testifies to the power of personal defiance in the face of unjust order, as well as the necessity of truth-telling for those whose loved ones have fallen victim to state violence.
A brief explanation in the preface to the text:
It was hard to even find a title befitting this piece!
The above ellipses substitute for the term “report” so as not to provoke the judge at Evin Prosecutor’s Office, who is dealing with the “charges” against me. Based on my intertextual readings of his remarks, the term “report” could be deemed accusatory and subject to “abuse by enemies” – not to mention the fact that the degree of his sensitivity to terminology is so high that I believe any endeavour on my part at avoiding them would leave me tongue tied. However, owing to my innate optimism and self-restraint, which I doggedly try to retain in these dark and terrifying times, I tried to refrain from using ellipses and terms that could be construed as “accusatory”, which consequently slowed the pace of my writing.
Another reason for the delay was my difficulty in finding the right context for my intended text - a context that would have the required flexibility to illustrate the entangled reality. Perhaps owing to my obsession with intertextual spaces, this text ultimately developed that characteristic and became an interstitial space between tragedy and comedy. Or perhaps the subject matter was such that it assumed such a context! Its tragedy is evident, while its humour you can find in between the lines. Finally, since my priority in this text was not its news aspect, I did not think that a delay in publishing it would be that important. The main text begins here:
For the past 12 years they have subjected us to this ban. In the earlier years, in addition to the ban, they also summoned me to appear before authorities such as the Government Office, Intelligence Ministry, various police stations and ultimately the local police station. At every one of these stages, I would try to reason and protest in vain, until they would inform me of their “orders” to ban the ceremony. Nevertheless, I would continue to protest. However, with the advent of the era of “moderation”, which built up hopes of permission for such ceremonies, they gradually abandoned that procedure. However, the main issue, which was the ban, remained, albeit assuming a different form; they still enforce the ban but avoid any official or public announcement of it. This year, too, they assumed the enforcement of the ban would be “legitimate”. They did not even feel obliged to give a reason for it; there was no transparency concerning the source of the official order, nor was there any formal communication of the ban order. Meanwhile, what has become most ambiguous and distorted is the mechanism for lodging a formal protest against the said “orders”. The authorities should be asked: How does such behaviour by the ruling establishment tally with the Civil Rights Charter? And do our civil rights include the right to know the source of official orders, or the right to protest against them?
However, creating ambiguity and confusion about whether or not it is permissible to hold such ceremonies dates back to before the incident. On Saturday, two days prior to the ceremony, an individual who identified himself as someone “from the ministry” telephoned me. Having given me the usual repetitious generalities and “advice”, he said that although there is no legal ban against holding memorial ceremonies at a residential home, “problematic individuals with the intention to abuse [the event]” will be barred entry; nor would the ceremony be allowed to “turn into a political session.” I told him that I did not regard the telephone conversation as official, and that surely telephone calls from an unknown number cannot be deemed official communication; moreover, any official conversation with me concerning the ceremony must be made at an official venue and by officially-authorized individuals to provide me with the opportunity to follow up and lodge a complaint.
As I was returning home that afternoon, I saw two relatively young men in civilian clothes standing by the courtyard. They were talking to an elderly workman who had come to help with the preparations for the ceremony. They introduced themselves as census officials and were bombarding the respected elderly gentleman with questions. They even asked for his National Identity Card and took a picture of it. Their behaviour and line of questioning aroused my suspicion so I asked them to produce their IDs. They could not find their IDs among the numerous forms they were carrying. Upon my insistence, one of them headed for the car, which they said was parked at the top of the road, to get the IDs from the glove compartment. The other one, after some prevarication, said that they were from the Law-Enforcement Force. I asked to see his ID and he showed it to me. His rank was major. He said they had not disclosed their identity to avoid causing “fear” among members of the household. He added that their intention was to “maintain security” in my parents’ house for me and my relatives, and that I should “preciate” [slang for appreciate] it. When he questioned me on our plans for the anniversary, I asked him what orders they had been given in that regard. He evaded an answer. When I persisted, he said that no particular orders had been communicated and that “the ceremony will take place like all the previous years.” That phrase, which is a clear example of the common denominator between tragedy and comedy, left me flabbergasted.
The authorities should be asked: what is the outcome such behaviour is likely to have for citizens other than generating chaos and public unease? How can one be sure of the authenticity of such “contacts”? And more importantly, would such methods not cross the line between “rogue agents” and “officially commissioned officers”? Would citizens not become confused amid all the “advice” and contradictory orders and commands from “agents” belonging to different organs?
When I lived in Tehran, whenever I related the bizarre tale above, others related similar tales to me. It seems like the said procedure has become the norm! It may perhaps even be related to “moderation”, the meaning of which I have yet to grasp. The procedure has resulted in the emergence of an opaque and uneven relationship between security agents belonging to various organs and ordinary citizens.
Based on what I have heard, in most cases those subjected to such “contacts” tend to relinquish their demands and rights and give in to coercion; they do so owing to the difficulties they face in an unsafe environment, fear of raids by “rogue agents” and other “outcomes” about which they are “cautioned” during these contacts. In such circumstances, censorship is steadily replaced with self-censorship, hence the official power structure no longer being held accountable for resorting to coercion.
The authorities should be asked: is there a correlation between promotion of self-censorship and publication of the Civil Rights Charter?
On 22 November, I was summoned to the Evin Prosecutor’s Office with my lawyer to “respond to the charges filed against me”. The aforementioned judge was seated behind his desk leafing through some printed material, which appeared to me to be from internet. He asked me general questions about my life, education, profession and social life, to which I responded with the obvious answers. My arraignment was adjourned until future sessions in which “case experts” would be present.
At the following session, I was formally informed that the plaintiff was the Intelligence Ministry and that the experts present were from that ministry; in other words, the very ministry whose personnel had raided my parents’ house at night 18 years ago and killed them in the most heinous fashion, had now lodged a complaint against me! They had found a pretext to distort the event. Occupying the position of plaintiff, they sought to erase any memory of who the real plaintiff was, thus stifling the voice of the real plaintiff under the force of trumped-up charges. With that ploy, they sought to ensure that any attempts at advancing my complaint would be in vain. I ask myself: what is the correlation between these trumped-up complaints filed by that ministry and the “hope-inspiring” sermons delivered by the head of the government of “moderation”?
It was in the third session that the judge, as he was setting the bail, recorded the charges against me as “spreading propaganda against the system and insulting sanctities and [the third Shia imam] Imam Hussein”.
I failed to find out what evidence they had regarding the first “charge”. Perhaps in the era of the Civil Rights Charter, any criticisms and protests levelled at the government - such as protesting against the political assassination of one’s parents by government officials, protesting against absence of fair trial by the judiciary in the case of the murder of one’s parents, protesting against parliament for failing to investigate a complaint, protesting against a ban by “officers following orders”, protesting against censorship by official organs and domestic media of the record of [my parents’] political struggle, protesting against the series of raids and plunderings of one’s home and the scene of one’s parents’ murder, and, to sum up, exposing incessant injustices – are deemed evidence of spreading propaganda against the system.
And I ask myself: If protesting against injustice is deemed propaganda against the system and a crime, is there any way of avoiding a “guilty” charge other than opting for silence and giving in to coercion? And, naturally, I hope this question will not also be deemed propaganda against the system, as it would increase the weight of [my alleged] crime.
As regards the assertion of “insulting sanctities”: it was none other than a repetition of those biased and tendentious interpretations of my artistic work, in which I had used religious inscriptions, which they started posting online last summer. The fact that I am now being prosecuted – on top of the hullabaloo, defamation, libel, and aggressive threats against me – serves to confirm the belief that their intention from the outset was to build a trumped-up case against me. They initiated that wave so that by riding on it they could pretend to be defending “sanctities” and depict my work as evidence of “crime.” That summer I wrote a lengthy article in reaction to that wave of slander and threats, in the hope that my revelations would somehow quell the polluted and violent atmosphere and replace the trend of unrestrained accusations and insults against artists with critiques and reviews of artistic works. How deluded! That very article now appears to have become evidence in relation to the “charges” against me.
I ask myself: are there any words which could illustrate this situation without pushing one into a trap? What would be the appropriate response to such a situation? And what trait should one look for in oneself to contain the shock and disgust at this situation?
I ask myself: what rights do we have as survivors of political crimes? Are we regarded as “citizens” in our homeland? Are we allowed any reaction other than yielding to coercion and silence in the face of the injustice meted out against us? Could the authorities come up with response to our complaints other than prevarication and repression?
On 2nd December, I went to Imamzadeh Taher [Cemetery] with Maryam, the wife of Mohammad Mokhtari, to place flowers on the graves of two noble writers murdered a few days after my parents by Intelligence Ministry officials, on the orders of the same intelligence minister.
A large number of police officers and plainclothes agents swamped the entrance to the cemetery. They even stopped some people from entering. However, they did not stop us, so I guess we should be grateful. When we reached the graves of Mokhtari and [Mohammad Jafar] Pouyandeh, there were just a handful of “us” there. Everyone stood further back. Wherever we looked we spotted police officers and plainclothes agents. Some of them were standing so close to us that I could feel their breath, while their countless cameras were focused on the two graves. A few minutes later, before we had even had a chance to place the flowers on the graves, the officers “ordered” us: “Enough is enough. Leave!” The sound of a dirge was coming out of a half-finished building; it resembled those Ashura dirges that have recently become fashionable, with fast beats that really remind one of “Western” techno music. Amidst the aggressive commands of the officers the sound of the dirge suddenly became so loud that I thought I was going to go deaf. I don’t know how many loudspeakers they had installed in that building that was producing such an influx of sound. One should ask the initiators what other intention they could have had in playing that dirge at such an extremely high volume other than disturbing the privacy of our mourning, making us feel unsafe, and chasing us away, when we had only come to commemorate the anniversary of our loved ones’ murders? Was such behaviour not an example of abuse of a religious ritual to force us out of the cemetery? Was there a common purpose between the aggressive behaviour of the officers and the playing of that dirge? Were they not both aimed at chasing us away? What does criticism of such a repressive action have to do with “insulting” Ashura dirges?
To me this is a clear example of how they sought a pretext to link the incident to my artistic work, to build a false case against me, to portray any criticisms made by me of the power structure as “insulting sanctities”, and to render any artistic work that denotes social criticism a “ crime”. The key question that remains is what does criticism of a power structure that suppresses nonconformists by abusing religion have to do with “insulting sanctities”?
Maryam and I were still standing by the graves of Mokhtari and Pouyandeh when a young man screamed. Amid all the racket, I did not hear what he was yelling. The officers pounced on him, dragging him away while beating him up. We could only stand there for a short time. The officers trampled on the flowers and aggressively chased us away. The obscene yelling of one of them still rings in my ears; he kept repeating: “Get lost!”
We did not have a chance to stand outside the cemetery either. It was there that they punched and kicked Mazdak, son of Naser Zarafshan, the lawyer who represented victims of the political assassinations of November 1998. They shoved anyone who protested, swore and threatened them with arrest. They then arrested our treasured lawyer Naser Zarafshan who had rushed to the scene to protest against the beating of his son.
A few days later, when I went to visit Zarafshan in his law firm, I saw Mazdak. He was sitting in front of a computer. He looked up and smiled and kept repeating that he was well. Half his face was bruised and his lips were swollen. They had released him on bail; as to what his “offence” was I have no idea. His father was preparing a judicial complaint regarding the assault on his son.
I asked myself: where will our multitudes of complaints lead to?
No doubt they would find some “phoney suspect” who would take the blame under covert pressure or in return for some covert deals. He would probably confess to having carried out the assault “impulsively” and “apologize.” Perhaps they would pass some kind of a sentence to wrap up the case: puppet courts instead of fair trials in a bid to close open cases. And perhaps these predictions of mine are not based on lengthy and repeated experiences with the Judiciary but intended to “demonize” [the judiciary]!
On my last day in Tehran, the judge overseeing the case regarding the burglary of my parents’ house issued his ruling. I had written a brief report of the trial, which had taken place on 26 November. The following is a summary:
The burglary case included interrogation of several suspects, one of whom had confessed to the crime alleging that he had carried it out on his own. Despite my written statement regarding the considerable damage and scale of the burglary, the accused was not asked a single question about how he had managed to carry out such a big job singlehandedly; how he had singlehandedly broken down the securely padlocked metal garden gate with a sledgehammer after going through a narrow and densely occupied alley with houses closely packed together; how he had cut the iron railing entrance to the building in several places, and rummaged through and destroyed every corner of a three-storey building, pulled out the taps, intercom system and wall lights and thrown them on the floor, not to mention taking many small and large objects with him. Nor did they investigate the allegation by the accused that he had sold all those precious mementoes in Shush Square. However, in a court session in the presence of me and my lawyers, the accused denied everything and told us that he had been forced to confess under duress. Moreover, the injuries and bruise marks on the accused’s body as he was taken into detention were noted in the file.
To be honest, that day I became hopeful that, owing to the defendant’s explicit statements, the judge would rule the investigations flawed, thus putting the probe on the right track. However, in his ruling, the judge made no mention of what the accused had said in the court session. Instead he cited elaborate details of the accused’s bizarre allegations, which defied all common sense. I do not know whether the ruling is the result of a deliberate immoral act or stems from the incompetence and persistent flimsiness of the system. My defence team appealed against the ruling. I await its outcome.
The other case, in which I myself am the “accused,” remains open pending completion of the investigations. I will leave the account of what took place in the presence of the judge and “experts” for a later date, lest at this juncture I end up adding to the weight of the “charges” against me through “demonization”.
The aforementioned account offers merely a tiny glimpse into the muddled and tangled realities of our current situation. In the city of Tehran chaos runs riot. The city is engulfed in smog; it has succumbed to discrimination and disintegration, its poison gnawing away at the minds and bodies of its citizens. People are trapped in a dead-end existence, and the border between civilization and barbarism has suddenly broken down.
However, in this relentless tangle, when you often witness how the thread of one person’s life becomes a rope around the neck of another, every once in a while you come across poised individuals determined to protect their dignity, their honour, and their ability to love and remain steadfast to their personal and social commitments. One can delight in the integrity of such individuals determined to remain decent while living in appalling circumstances; they rekindle the hope we had lost somewhere along the way. Although a renowned philosopher had once spoken of the impossibility of leading decent lives under appalling conditions, when you wander around Tehran and observe the empathy of its citizens despite the challenges, you realize that the aforementioned philosopher has not related the whole truth about our times. The key to remaining decent in a cesspool of indecency is found in the peak of human ability.
In the battlefield of empty slogans and chronic deceptions, in the bedlam of false and sleazy behaviours manifest in various social, cultural, and political arenas, in the midst of fake individuals and ideas, not to mention the thousands of calamities that have befallen this society, one can still see flashes of human intelligence and dignity. And they should be honoured and venerated. There are many people in this city who are striving to pull themselves out of this trap, despite the backbreaking pressures. To me, acknowledging their worth and helping them in their day-to-day challenges and tireless work would be a life blessing. As for the judges, whatever ruling they make, the truth is measured elsewhere.
This final paragraph is neither comedy nor tragedy. Nor is it some impressive slogan stemming from disregard for the depth of the crisis. It is rather a simple and sincere tribute to those individuals thanks to whose integrity the truth of life in these immoral times has not been eliminated.
I would like to express my profound gratitude to my lawyers and dear friends and relatives who are carrying the load of these hard times with me, and my sincere respect for those collaborating from near and far in the advancement of justice.
Parastu Forouhar, January 2017