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 offices.
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 Republic.
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 said.
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.