Tehran, Feb 6 (AP/UNB) — The halls of the former prison in the heart of Iran's capital now are hushed, befitting the sounds of the museum that it has become. Wax mannequins silently portray the horrific acts of torture that once were carried out within its walls.
But the surviving inmates still remember the screams.
Exhibits in the former Anti-Sabotage Joint Committee Prison that was run under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi include a frightened man trapped in a small metal cage as a cigarette-smoking interrogator shouts above him.
In a circular courtyard, a snarling interrogator is depicted forcing a prisoner's head under water while another inmate above hangs from his wrists.
As Iran this month marks the 40th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the shah, the surviving inmates who suffered torture at the hands of the country's police and dreaded SAVAK intelligence service still bear both visible and hidden scars. Even today, United Nations investigators and rights group say Iran tortures and arbitrarily detains prisoners.
"We are far from where we must be as far as the justice is concerned," said Ahmad Sheikhi, a 63-year-old former revolutionary once tortured at the prison. "Justice has yet to be spread in the society, and we are definitely very far from the sacred goals of the martyrs and their imam," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The SAVAK, a Farsi acronym for the Organization of Intelligence and Security of the Nation, was formed in 1957. The agency, created with the help of the CIA and Israel's Mossad, initially targeted communists and leftists in the wake of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh.
Over time, however, its scope was widened drastically. Torture became widespread, as shown in the museum's exhibits. Interrogators all wear ties, a nod to their Western connections. Portraits of the shah, Queen Farah and his son, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who now lives in exile in the U.S., hang above one torture scene.
"Following the coup, the shah's regime sank into a legitimacy crisis and it failed to get rid of the crisis until the end of its life," said Hashem Aghajari, who teaches history at Tehran's Tarbiat Modares University. "The coup mobilized all progressive political forces against the regime."
Sheikhi walked with Associated Press journalists through the prison that once held him, built in the 1930s by German engineers. Black-and-white photographs of its 8,500 prisoners from over the years line the walls. They include current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Sheikhi, then 19, spent about three months in the prison and 11 months in another after being detained for distributing anti-shah statements from Khomeini, then in exile.
"Four times I was tortured in two consecutive days, every time about 10 minutes," he recounted. "They used electric cables and wires for flogging my (feet) while I was blindfolded. The first hit was very effective; you felt your heart and brain were exploding."
Even more frightening was the torture device interrogators and prisoners referred to as the Apollo, named after the U.S. lunar program. Those tortured sat in a chair and had a metal bucket strapped over their head, like a space helmet, that intensified their screams.
"They put my fingers and toes between the jaws of the vises firmly, whipped the soles of my feet with cables and put a metal bucket over head," Sheikhi said. "My own cries would twirl around inside the bucket and made me delirious and gave me headaches. They would hit the bucket with those cables as well."
Ezzat Shahi, another former prisoner who planted bombs targeting state buildings, recounted having pins hammered under his nails that would be heated by candles.
"Hanging from the wrists while your hands were handcuffed crossed behind was the most intolerable torture," Shahi said.
The horror of the torture shocked 20-year-old museumgoer Ameneh Khavari.
"I did not know that the torture might have been this agonizing, such as with the metal cage torture device," she said. "I had known that there was torture then from movies about the pre-revolution times, but would not have imagined that they looked like this."
As the revolution took hold, protesters overran the prison. Then Iran's Islamic government began using it as a prison as well, calling it Tohid. Human Rights Watch has accused Iran of using both Tohid and Evin prisons for detaining political prisoners. Tohid, then run by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, closed in 2000 under reformist President Mohammad Khatami after lawmakers sought to close prisons not under the control of the judiciary.
Today, Iran's government faces widespread international criticism from the U.N. and others over its detention of activists and those with ties to the West.
"Iranian authorities use vaguely worded and overly broad national security-related charges to criminalize peaceful or legitimate activities in defense of human rights," according to a report released in March 2018 by the office of the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.
Iran has criticized the U.N.'s creation of the special rapporteur's position and called its findings "psychological and propagandist pressures."
A series of Westerners, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, were held at Evin Prison. Rezaian is suing Iran in U.S. federal court over his detention, alleging he faced such "physical mistreatment and severe psychological abuse in Evin Prison that he will never be the same."
Since the revolution, several former prisons from the shah's time have closed, becoming museums and shopping malls, although new ones were built. A former mayor of Tehran even planned to make Evin Prison a park at one point. Funding never came through, however, and the site remains a prison today.
Abu Dhabi, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — Pope Francis ministered on Tuesday to the thriving Catholic community in the United Arab Emirates as he concluded his historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula with the first-ever papal Mass here.
Cheers erupted inside and out the the Zayed Sports City Stadium as Francis arrived and looped through the crowd in his open-sided popemobile before Mass. Chants of "Viva il Papa" and "We love you!" accompanied him as he waved to the crowd.
A day after making a broad appeal for Christian and Muslim leaders to work together to promote peace and reject war, Francis is celebrating what is being billed as the largest show of public Christian worship on the peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. The Mass was expected to draw some 135,000 faithful.
The stadium, which has a capacity of about 43,000, filled up early in the day while crowds outside were being organized in pens to watch the Mass on giant screens. Organizers said faithful from 100 countries would attend — as well as 4,000 Muslims from this Muslim federation. Prompted by an announcer extolling UAE's "Year of Tolerance," they cheered and waved Holy See flags awaiting Francis' arrival.
"We have to say it is really a big event for us which we never expected," said Sumitha Pinto, and Indian native who has lived in the UAE for nearly 20 years. She attended the Mass with her husband and four sons. Her youngest held up sign with the pope's photo that read: "Welcome Pope Francis. Make Me a Channel of Your Peace."
The Emirates' Catholic community is something an anomaly for the region — large, diverse and thriving at a time when the wider Mideast has seen an exodus of Christians fleeing persecution at the hands of the Islamic State group and others.
The Catholic Church estimates as many as 1 million of the over 9 million people living in the UAE are Catholic, nearly all of them foreigners drawn to the oil-rich federation to work in everything from white-collar finance to construction. Most are Filipino and Indian, many of whom have left behind families for work and can face precarious labor conditions, which human rights groups regularly denounce.
In an indication of the diversity of the Catholic flock, the prayers during Mass were being read out in a variety of languages and address the variety of hardships many face.
A prayer in the Indian language of Konkani called for public officials to be "illuminated" and promote the dignity of all; one in the Filipino language of Tagalog urged prayers for migrants and workers in in the UAE so that "their sacrifice and work may blossom and sustain their families;" while one in French called for those who foment violence to change their ways and "stop wars, overcome hatred and help us forge links of justice and peace."
On Monday, the pope met with Emirati leaders and signed a document promoting "human fraternity" with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni learning. He also urged religious leaders to work together to reject the "miserable crudeness" of war and resist the "logic of armed power ... the arming of borders, the raising of walls."
"There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future," Francis told Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince and hundreds of imams, muftis, ministers, rabbis and swamis gathered in the Emirati capital at a time when the UAE-backed Saudi war in Yemen has driven the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of famine.
"God is with those who seek peace," Francis added.
Francis' visit, 800 years after his peace-loving namesake St. Francis of Assisi visited an Egyptian sultan, marked the culmination of years of Holy See efforts to improve relations with the Muslim world after they hit a low during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Since then, religious fanaticism and faith-inspired wars have only grown around the globe, inspiring the pontiff's efforts to promote tolerance and understanding.
Baghdad, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — Iraq's president hit back at Donald Trump Monday for saying U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran, saying the U.S. leader did not ask for Iraq's permission to do so.
"We find these comments strange," said Barham Salih, speaking at a forum in Baghdad.
Trump's comments added to concerns in Iraq about America's long-term intentions, particularly after it withdraws its troops from Syria. Trump has angered Iraqi politicians and Iranian-backed factions by arguing he would keep U.S. troops in Iraq and use it as a base to strike Islamic State group targets inside Syria as needed.
In an interview with CBS News' "Face the Nation," he said U.S. troops in Iraq were also needed to monitor Iran.
"He didn't ask Iraq about this," Salih said Monday. He said U.S. troops were in Iraq as part of an agreement between the two countries with a specific mission of assisting in the fight against the Islamic State group and combatting "terrorism." He said the Iraqi constitution forbids the use of Iraq as a base to threaten the interests or security of neighboring countries.
"Don't overburden Iraq with your own issues," he added.
In the CBS interview, Trump said the U.S. has an "incredible base" in Iraq that he intends to keep, "because I want to be able to watch Iran."
"We spent a fortune on building this incredible base," Trump said. "We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem."
He said the U.S. base in Iraq is "perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East."
He appeared to be referring to the Al-Asad air base in western Iraq, where he paid a brief visit to U.S. forces in December. The base hosts American troops but belongs to the Iraqi army.
Trump's comments appear to have further inflamed tensions in Iraq over the continued presence of U.S. troops after the defeat of the Islamic State group. Curbing foreign influence has become a hot-button issue in Iraq after parliament elections in May in which Shiite militias backed by Iran made significant gains. The militias fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi troops against IS in recent years, gaining outsized influence and power along the way.
Now, after defeating IS militants in their last urban bastions, Iraqi politicians and militia leaders are increasingly speaking out against the continued presence of U.S. forces on Iraqi soil.
Trump has said he has no plans to withdraw the 5,200 troops in Iraq, which he says could carry out U.S. airstrikes inside Syria after American troops withdraw from that country.
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but returned in 2014 at the invitation of the government to help battle IS after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign.
Earlier this month, the leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias told The Associated Press in an interview that he expects a vote in the coming months by Iraq's parliament calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Qais al-Khazali, head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, also suggested U.S. troops may eventually be driven out by force if they do not yield to the will of the Iraqi people.
Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also weighed in on Monday, saying Iraqi sovereignty must be respected and its interests should not be compromised.
"Iraq should not be used as a spring board to attack its neighbors. We are not proxies in conflicts outside the interests of our nation," he wrote in a Twitter post.
Separately, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, said Monday that the safe and voluntary return of hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis is key to ensuring that the country can leave its violent past behind.
Maurer spoke at a press conference in Baghdad at the end of a four-day visit to the country, which included the northern cities of Mosul and Irbil. Maurer highlighted the extraordinary challenges that communities across the country continue to face, including the fact that 1.8 million people remain displaced within Iraq more than a year after major combat operations ended, with nearly one in three still living in camps.
"The returns process cannot be rushed," he said. "People need adequate housing and basic services, including drinking water and health care, as well as livelihood opportunities, security and the clearance of unexploded ordnance."
Beirut, Feb 5 (AP/UNB) — The head of Lebanon's Hezbollah is brushing off U.S. concerns about the health minister his group named to the new government, calling the official a "trusted brother" who will serve all Lebanese.
Hassan Nasrallah stressed Monday that Jamil Jabbak is not a member of the militant group, which Washington sanctions as a terrorist organization. He is one of three ministers named by the group.
The new government was formed last week after a nearly nine-month deadlock. Jabbak was Nasrallah's personal physician at one point.
Washington urged the government to ensure that Hezbollah does not benefit from its resources.
Nasrallah says his group's "religious and legal obligations" guarantee against abuse of public funds.
He says the group would ensure Jabbak's success, including donating Hezbollah funds to the ministry.
United Nations, Jan 31 (AP/UNB) — The U.N. humanitarian chief urged Syria's warring parties on Wednesday to ensure the delivery of desperately needed aid to Syrians stranded near the border with Jordan and warned again that a major military operation in extremist-controlled Idlib would be a humanitarian catastrophe.
Mark Lowcock said the U.N. wants an aid convoy, with more than 100 trucks accompanied by some 250 U.N. and Syrian Arab Red Crescent personnel, to leave for the isolated Rukban camp on the Syria-Jordan border by Feb. 5. Its 42,000 people "remain stranded in deteriorating conditions since the last convoy to the area in early November," which was the first since January 2018, he said.
Lowcock also appealed for money to buy basics from blankets to baby milk and bandages for millions of Syrians living under tents or tarpaulins or in unheated buildings in severe winter conditions that have seen freezing temperatures, snowfalls and flooding that has forced tens of thousands of people to move.
His address to the U.N. Security Council came amid rising concern over the plight of some three million people in Idlib, which was the last major stronghold of the Syrian opposition. Earlier this month, al-Qaida-linked militants seized more than two dozen towns and villages in northern Syria from rival insurgents in the most serious blow to a September cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that averted a major government offensive in Idlib province.
Lowcock said that January saw an increase in fighting between armed groups in Idlib, "placing civilians at risk and resulting in injury and death."
"Today I reiterate the importance of sustaining the Russia-Turkey agreement and remind you that a large-scale military operation in Idlib would have catastrophic humanitarian implications," he told council members.
The envoys from the United States, Britain, France and other council nations echoed Lowcock and stressed that all efforts must be made to sustain the Idlib cease-fire.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council that Moscow shares concerns about the situation in Idlib and the increase in cease-fire violations, saying about a thousand cases have been reported "as a result of which 65 people have died and more than 200 have been injured."
He said the Idlib de-escalation zone has come under the control of al-Qaida-linked militants allied with the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. And he recalled Russia's warning "right from the start ... that freezing the situation where there are terrorists is something that is not sustainable in the long-term."
Nebenzia said after talks Sunday in Moscow between the Russian and Turkish leaders, "work was stepped up to develop effective, feasible and agreed upon measures regarding the Idlib de-escalation zone."
He gave no details but reiterated that Russia continues to believe that the "the best solution for stabilizing the situation in the northwest or the northeast of Syria" is to transfer the areas' control to the Syrian government.
As for the aid convoy to the Rukban camp, Jordan closed the border over security concerns and the Syrian government and its ally Russia have blamed U.S. troops stationed nearby for failing to provide security for aid shipments — allegations denied by the Americans.
Lowcock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said the U.N. received verbal approval on Jan. 27 for the convoy to proceed as well as security guarantees from Russia and international coalition forces.
"Planning is now under way for loading of the trucks to begin before the end of this week, and for them to set off by Feb. 5," Lowcock said. "We call on all parties to ensure that this goes ahead without any further delay."
Acting U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen said the convoy "is vital," but "sustained humanitarian access is crucial."
Kuwait, Belgium and Germany, who are in charge of humanitarian resolutions on Syria, echoed that view saying almost 12 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid including more than 5 million children according to U.N. statistics.
Kuwait's U.N. Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi, speaking on behalf of the three countries, said about 80 percent of the people in Rukban camp are women and children.
"A cease-fire, not only in Idlib, but nationwide, would enable the flow of humanitarian assistance and the evacuation of the wounded and sick," he said.