I was midflight Saturday when I learned that Evin Prison, the notorious Iranian jail where I spent 544 days, was on fire. News of the blaze was spreading quickly on social media, and other Evin alumni were reaching out. When I landed, images on my cellphone of the smoke billowing from the massive facility on the mountainside of northern Tehran catapulted me back into that horrible, hopeless place.
On the one hand, Evin on fire is an exhilarating reminder of the struggle happening inside Iran. Protests for women’s and minorities’ rights have gone on longer and spread farther than previous movements, and now the single most identifiable structure of the Islamic republic’s repression gets set ablaze. Prison fires don’t happen when authorities have everything under control.
But Evin is a dangerous place to be even without a fire. With one, it’s chaos. I thought about all the dissidents, journalists, activists and hostages — some of them my friends — wrongfully imprisoned among the overflowing population. Just days before the fire, American hostage Siamak Namazi was forced back into the jail after a short furlough.
But it’s impossible to know what’s happening inside Evin. Iran’s regime reports that at least eight people died in the fire, and dozens more were injured; were the people I know among them?
This fire is the moment for the Biden administration, other allied governments who have citizens held hostage in Iran, and any party that cares about human rights to demand an end to the misery of these wrongfully jailed people and their families, and to put an end to Iran’s barbaric prison practices once and for all.
If the international community doesn’t impose a cost on the Iranian regime for routine flouting of basic norms, that will never happen. Global Magnitsky sanctions should be leveled on all relevant officials, past and present, who have been a party to this regime’s human rights abuses.
Reports conflict as to how exactly the Evin fire started. Some say it was an uprising by prisoners, others an attack on political dissidents by authorities. Least plausible is the idea that it was simply an accident. However, it began, though, the blaze took me back to being arrested in 2014, and to the many late nights locked in my cell afterward when I wondered what would happen if a fire broke out.
Like other foreign hostages, I was detained in Section 2A, a ward controlled — without oversight — by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. All the structures confining me were shoddily built, as with everything at Evin. The doors were iron, the ceilings packed with asbestos. And the guards were hardly concerned with our well-being. I could easily imagine being left in an emergency by lazy Rasoul, or Khosrow with his fly-shooing tic, or the young, serious guard I called “The Commander” who hid his identity with a surgical mask.
Over the courtyard adjoining my cell, a pandemonium of parrots would dance and play chase in the sky. Trapped and abandoned, I would watch behind my 12-foot brick wall, the wall behind that, and the third even higher one, topped with barbed wire. I hope the tall sycamores the parrots perched in late every afternoon are still standing.
Evin is a miserable place, and the unlucky souls who end up there are kept in suspended animation, confused about when, if ever, they will be released. Every sort of deprivation is possible within its walls; prisoners are routinely denied sustenance, medical attention, sleep and human contact, not to mention legal representation.
The wails that came from neighboring cells are souvenirs from my solitary confinement I take with me everywhere, as is the memory of the bright artificial light that was turned on 24 hours a day. Nearly seven years after my release, I still get agitated by time spent in a room with fluorescent bulbs.
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Since Iran’s protests began in September, members of the country’s diaspora have organized demonstrations each Saturday in cities around the world. At one earlier this month in Washington, I talked to friends I ran into there. Each was from a different part of my life — two journalists, one a Sunni Kurd, another a feminist activist involved in the protest movement long before the rest of the world was talking about it.
These friends had never met one another, but we had all done time in Evin. It gave us a shared language, and a shared understanding of why the current protests are so important, because we know all too well the lengths the Islamic republic will go to quell any opposition to the regime. We all recall our time too vividly, and know a fire is far from the only horror there.
Evin doesn’t leave you. But it’s time for all those unfairly imprisoned to leave it.