June 13, 2006

Iran opens up notorious Evin prison for tour

By Edmund Blair

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran opened the large steel doors of its
notorious Evin prison to journalists on Tuesday, showing off
spruced-up women's cells and a well-equipped clinic in a move
aimed at countering criticism about poor conditions.

But the rare tour of the jail in the leafy suburbs of north
Tehran did not include buildings where a Canadian-Iranian
philosopher is held on spying charges without access to a
lawyer or cells of men who make up most of the 2,500 inmates.

Most of the visit, the first by foreign journalists in as
long as officials could remember, focused on women's quarters
where inmates were in class learning to read, working as paid
seamstresses or looking after their infants in the nursery.

Iran's Society for Defending Prisoners on Saturday
criticized conditions in Iranian jails, citing cases of
beatings and blindfolding. It also cited cases where it said
defendants had inadequate access to lawyers.

"This is a baseless claim," Justice Minister Jamal
Karimirad told a news conference, held in the Evin prison

Some inmates grumbled about jail conditions but others said
their main complaint was about what they said was an unfair
judicial system.

"I have been here for two years because of bounced cheques.
I will be here until I pay. I cannot get a lawyer as it is very
expensive. The judge refuses to free me on parole," said one
60-year-old woman inmate, who asked not to be named.

Karimirad said defendants were given access to a lawyer and
assigned one if they could not afford to pay.


But Karimirad said Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo,
who has lectured on democracy in Iran and engagement with the
West, would not be allowed to see a lawyer until questioning
was complete because his was a "security case."

Officials said he could not be seen without a special pass.

The jail is notorious for its political prisoners, although
Iran denies it holds anyone for political reasons.

In the smart clinic that was included on the tour, Iran's
most prominent political dissident, Akbar Ganji, staged a
hunger strike that left him gravely weakened during his
six-year sentence that ended in March. He was jailed for
criticizing some of the most powerful figures in the Islamic

Amnesty International says there are "fundamental flaws in
the administration of justice in Iran." It says the penal code
contains vaguely worded provisions that prohibit activities
that include many connected to journalism or public discourse.

When Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist took
photos outside the high Evin prison walls, where signs warn "No
Photography," she was hauled inside. She later died in custody
and her death in 2003 is still being investigated.

Most of the men in Evin have been jailed for financial
crimes. Journalists met some of them as they prepared food in
the prison kitchens. But the men's cells were not shown.

About 300 to 400 of the inmates are women jailed for
offences that include drugs crimes and murder, an official

Most cells for women, each with 21 beds stacked three high,
had their doors removed during reforms in recent years, an
official said. Walls appeared recently painted.

When the prison guides were out of earshot, some women said
they were told to clean up their quarters before the visit.

In the nursery, prison officers handed out presents to
children of inmates in front of journalists. "Say thank you,"
Fatemi Javadian told her son, who at the age of two has reached
the age when he will soon have to leave prison and his mother.

The prison was once used for interrogations by the Shah's
feared SAVAK intelligence agency.

After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the "hanging judge,"
Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, delivered swift justice inside the
prison on the Shah's former officials. Residents in the Evin
suburb said they could often hear his firing squads.