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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 June 2006, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
Inside Iran's most notorious jail
frances harrison
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

A woman sits on her bunk bed, her face in her hands
There are 375 women in Iran's biggest and most notorious prison
Iran has for the first time opened the gates of its biggest and most notorious prison, Evin jail, to a group of foreign and local journalists.

Justice Minister Jamal Karimirad said it was because some internet sites had published stories criticising Iran's human rights record in prisons ahead of next week's meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

We were only shown the women's ward of Evin jail in the northern suburbs of the Iranian capital, Tehran, and were not allowed to film any of it, except for some empty dormitories.

All the buildings we were shown appeared to have been recently refurbished. We were not allowed to choose where we went.

Psychotherapy

The tour began with the hospital building, which the prison authorities said had been constructed in the past two years.

The operating room has not been finished yet some patients still have to be sent outside the jail for treatment.

A woman peers around a doorway as a guard passes by
The Iranian authorities do not recognise "political prisoners"

There was an emergency section, a laboratory, radiology and physiotherapy on offer, as well as a midwife.

Dr Mustafa Mohvahedi, who works there, said there had been only one suicide in the past six months but patients and their families could opt for psychotherapy if they needed it.

He said 32 of the inmates were HIV-positive and one of those now had full-blown Aids. The hospital had many posters warning about the danger of Aids and promoting condom use.

According to prison officials, there are 2,575 men and 375 women in Evin jail.

They say none of these are political prisoners because Iran does not recognise this as a category.

Permission denied

Journalists asked to see some of the better-known prisoners, such as the Canadian-Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo who was arrested last month in connection with issues of national security, but permission was denied.

The authorities said a judge had to give written permission to see him.

Reporters also asked to see a French national and a German national who are being held in the prison, but permission was also denied.

There was also a tour of the prison kitchens, where officials were keen to demonstrate the high-quality of food - they were serving khoresht e gheimeh (split pea and lamb stew) for lunch.

But one woman prisoner we spoke to, who was charged with illicit sex and prostitution, complained that the food was not good.

Lengthy trials

We were taken to an area where prisoners were cutting and stitching trousers.

A heavily-veiled woman sits at her sewing machine
Women receive literacy classes and instruction in carpet weaving

Khadije, 28, said she worked there from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon and was not paid.

She said the food was alright and her main problem was not the conditions in jail but how long it took for her case to be heard in court.

She said she had been charged with theft and kidnapping along with her husband but she had not been able to see him for the past three months because he was being held in another jail.

Even when they went for court appearances they were transported separately, she said.

A 21-year-old woman, who did not want to give her name and was charged with being an accomplice to serial murder with her boyfriend, also said the main problem was how long the trial was taking.

She had been in jail six months and was still waiting for the verdict.

She admitted to posing as an estate agent in order to rob houses but did not know that her boyfriend was killing the women they robbed.

She said she saw her family once a week and was happy that the cells were clean.

Degrees

The prison authorities showed us women receiving literacy classes and instruction in carpet weaving as well as a library and a small snack shop.

One official said 500 inmates were studying for university degrees from inside the jail.

A heavily-veiled woman uses a prison payphone
Inmates are allowed to use phones 10 minutes a day

There was an open air yard where the women can play netball as well as an indoor gym.

We tried to talk to the women in the gym but a prison official stood over us listening and intimidating the women.

One woman started to complain that they were bullied and we were quickly ushered away.

In the corridors, we saw two public telephones and were told by the prison that inmates are allowed to use them for 10 minutes a day.

We saw women in their cells, which were dormitories with bunk beds housing about 20 women.

The cells had no doors and were clean and tidy - many with brand new carpet on the floor.

One 70-year-old woman complained she had been in jail two years because she could not pay a fine of about $4,500 (2,450).

Another woman said she and her husband had been jailed after they printed a book in their home that criticised the regime's interpretation of Islam.

Welfare home

There was a special section for mothers.

Children under three years of age are allowed to stay with their mothers in the jail - some have even been born in the prison.

One woman with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter said she did not like to keep her child inside a jail but she had nobody else to look after her.

She was in prison on a drug-related charges. When her child reaches three years of age, she will be sent to a welfare home, she said.

Although the physical conditions of the section we saw appeared good, it was impossible to gauge whether or not there is mistreatment of prisoners inside the jail.

Former political prisoners, such as journalists and bloggers, have complained of human rights abuses such as solitary confinement, harsh interrogation tactics and even torture.

The best-known case of abuse was that of the Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi who was arrested after taking pictures of relatives outside Evin jail.

She was so badly beaten that she died of her injuries in hospital.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
See inside Tehran's Evin jail





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