PARIS (Reuters) - Houshang Asadi is an equal opportunity torture victim.
He was tortured under the Shah and tortured again after Iran’s Islamic Revolution. He still feels the pain, every night.
Now the 59-year-old former communist journalist, who lives in exile in Paris, is finally getting even with his former torturer — a man he came to know and fear as Brother Hamid — via the Internet.
Asadi’s tale of woe mirrors the modern history of Iran. He recounts the horrors and intrigue with humanity, touches of poetry and humor in a book entitled “Letters to my Torturer,” which has just been published in English (*).
When he was first tortured by the Shah’s Savak secret police in Tehran’s Moshtarek prison in the late 1970s, he shared a cell with a Muslim cleric named Ali Khamenei. They became friends.
By the time Asadi was tortured again in the same jail in the early 1980s, Khamenei had been maimed in a bomb attack and had become president of the Islamic Republic, established after the Shah was overthrown in a 1979 revolution.
Today, Khamenei is Iran’s supreme leader, presiding over yet another crackdown on reformists, imposed after protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election last year. Some of the same prisons and interrogation techniques are at work again, according to the opposition.
In two years of revolutionary turmoil and relative freedom before Asadi’s second arrest, he kept in touch with Khamenei.
The book depicts an intellectual, humane, literature-loving Khamenei who enjoys a joke, unrecognizable as the stern fundamentalist ideologue of today.
When Asadi was sentenced to death for supposedly being part of an alleged Communist plot to overthrow the Islamic regime, his wife contacted the president to appeal for help.
Khamenei sent the judge a handwritten note saying simply he had been aware of the journalist’s political ideas all along. Asadi does not believe that was what saved him from execution.
“I wasn’t senior enough in the party. They executed members of the first leadership level. I was not in the first cadre. I was a journalist on Mardom, the party newspaper,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Asadi survived the mass killing of thousands of political prisoners ordered by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1988, after telling the court he had renounced the communist Tudeh party and become a faithful Muslim.
A connoisseur of torture, he is acutely perceptive of the differences between practitioners.
“Savak’s purpose was to extract information, whereas the Islamists want to break you, to insult you,” he said.
Brother Hamid called him “useless wimp” and made him bark like a dog when he wanted to “confess” to stop the pain.
The aim was to make a sinner repent and embrace Islam, even though that was no guarantee of avoiding execution ultimately.
Techniques employed included hanging prisoners by a chain attached to their arms behind their back, whipping the soles of their feet until they cannot walk or stand without agony, and breaking their teeth, then denying them dental treatment.
Asadi was also subjected to the humiliation of being forced to eat his own excrement, and that of fellow leftist inmates.
Brother Hamid wanted him to confess to having been part of a communist coup plot, bizarrely said to have been wrought by the Soviet and British secret intelligence service.
He was ordered to write “confessions” on sheets of plain paper that were left in the torture room. If they were unsatisfactory, he was subjected to fresh agonies.
“They want to make you play the role they have written for you in their own screenplay,” said Asadi, a cinema buff who published a film magazine in Tehran until it was raided and shut down in 2005, the year he and his wife fled to France.
Before each torture session, Brother Hamid invoked Shi’ite Muslim saints. “In the name of heavenly Fatimeh...” Thwack!
When the torturer tired, he would switch on a tape recorder repeating a mesmeric Shi’ite chant recalling the battleground where Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, was killed: “Kerbala, Kerbala, we are on our way...”
Moshtarek prison is today a museum, with exhibits denouncing the Shah’s torturers. But their techniques are still in use at Tehran’s sprawling Evin prison — the main detention center for political offenders, according to released detainees.
Now it is Brother Hamid who has been made to sweat since Asadi outed him in a Voice of America interview as Iran’s ambassador to a central Asian state. The envoy was quickly recalled to Tehran and sent into retirement.
Asadi, who with his wife Nooshabeh Amiri works for a news website (www.roozonline.com), posted a picture on the Internet of his tormentor with President Ahmadinejad, on an official visit to Tajikistan.
“Praise be to Allah a million times, you’ve grown fat. Your double chin sticks about above your official embassy uniform,” he wrote. Despite being blindfolded for most of his time in prison, he said he had clearly seen Brother Hamid three times.
Young exiled democracy activists of the banned Green Movement have found new pictures of Brother Hamid, who rose to be deputy minister of intelligence, attending a reunion of former ambassadors.
They have discovered his address, the names of his children and contacted his daughter via her Facebook page.
In the Internet age, even torturers must fear for their privacy.
(*Letters to My Torturer; Love, Revolution and Imprisonment in Khomeini’s Iran; published by Oneworld, Oxford.)
Editing by Samia Nakhoul