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Covert Terror: Iran’s Parallel Intelligence Apparatus


The goal of PIA interrogations was to break detainees so they would confess to crimes they had not committed. To achieve this goal, PIA agents employed a variety of interrogation tactics. These tactics included both “soft” tactics -- subtle interrogation methods designed to trick, confuse or lull detainees into submission -- and “hard” tactics, including intimidation, threats, assaults and torture.

The interrogations were aimed at producing evidence that would incriminate political dissidents and student activists under national security laws, or which would damage detainees’ moral credibility and reputation. Many of the detainees were accused by their interrogators of involvement in espionage, connections to foreign institutions or receiving funding from foreign intelligence agencies or known Iranian dissidents, offenses which carry severe sentences, including the death penalty.

Without fail, interrogation sessions were conducted in the absence of legal counsel or representation. All former detainees interviewed for this report were kept blindfolded during their interrogation sessions, as well as during periods of detention and even during visits to the restroom.

Interrogation sessions often lasted for hours, and were conducted by rotating interrogators at random hours throughout the night. In some cases, sessions lasted for four consecutive nights. Detainees were often not allowed to use the restrooms while undergoing interrogation. The only break detainees were permitted was during prayer time. Some detainees reported that they were not allowed to return to their cells for days until they agreed to participate in the interrogators’ plot to uncover alleged reformist conspiracies. Between interrogation sessions, detainees were usually subjected to sleep deprivation and held in solitary confinement.

The PIA’s heavy reliance on solitary confinement, perhaps more than any of the other cruel methods employed in the secret detention facilities, was often what led detainees to the breaking point. Solitary confinement was used not as punishment for undisciplined detainees, but rather to force confessions out of those who refused to cooperate. Long periods of silence and inactivity during solitary confinement were often immediately followed by intense, violent and long interrogation sessions conducted by several PIA agents. This repeating pattern of sensory deprivation followed by sensory overload eventually took its psychological toll.

In 2004, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned the widespread and long-term use of solitary confinement in Iran:

“[F]or the first time since its establishment, [the Working Group] has been confronted with a strategy of widespread use of solitary confinement for its own sake and not for traditional purposes.… This is not a matter of a few punishment cells, as exist in all prisons, but what is a ‘prison within a prison’ fitted out for the systematic, large-scale abuse of solitary confinement, frequently for long periods…. It appears to be an established fact that the use of this kind of detention has allowed the extraction of ‘confessions’ followed by ‘public repentance’ (on television); besides their degrading nature, such statements are manifestly inadmissible as evidence.”

Detainees subjected to solitary confinement were often kept incommunicado in small cells measuring just 5 feet by 6.5 feet. Most of these cells were located underground, and lit with artificial light 24 hours a day. In many cases, detainees were kept in solitary confinement for months at a time. One detainee interviewed by IHRDC stated that he spent 128 continuous days in solitary confinement, and many others have told similar stories to IHRDC and other human rights organizations.

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