By Drewery Dyke, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher
Siamak Pourzand, a veteran journalist and former prisoner of conscience, has committed suicide in Tehran at the age of 80.
Frail, infirm and unable to bear further indignity, without even the solace of his family around him, he let himself fall from a sixth story balcony. In truth, he was killed by the repeated human rights violations he endured, which lead to chronic ill health, at the hands of a judicial system in which human dignity had been lost.
Siamak Pourzand was formerly the head of a Tehran cultural centre and an occasional journalist: three decades earlier he was a foreign correspondent for Tehran’s Kayhan newspaper, and was based in the US.
But in November 2001, his life changed forever.
He was taken from outside his sister’s apartment in Tehran and when she looked for him, officials told her it was none of her business. Months later she was allowed to meet with him for 10 minutes.
In March 2002, following a forced televised “confession” and grossly unfair trial, he was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment, which was upheld on appeal in July of that year. At the end of 2002, he was released on health grounds, but was returned to Evin Prison in March 2003.
In the course of 2003 his health plummeted. By July he was rendered immobile but was still never given the care he needed – the authorities routinely delay or deny access to adequate medical care as a matter of unsaid policy. And it serves to shorten the lives of prisoners.
In March 2004 he suffered a heart attack and in that April, following sustained international outcry, he was eventually but temporarily moved to a specialist hospital. It was here that an official from Evin Prison called him and told him to give an interview declaring that he had never been ill-treated.
I saw him in hospital in mid 2004. Wrapped head to toe in a gauze, he was quick to smile and bore his suffering with great dignity. He was clearly in a lot of pain but eager to talk about the world outside, current trends and developments.
While I was with him a former cellmate stopped by to exchange stories about other cellmates, in an example of how Iran’s judicial system has made family out of total strangers.
I spent only several hours in his presence and I will be forever touched by it. I learned that Siamak Pourzand was not only a family man, but one with a firm, quiet sense of justice. I know that this part of Siamak Pourzand lives on in his family. One daughter, Banafsheh, is an activist and commentator in the USA.
His wife, Mehrangiz Kar was one of Iran’s leading human rights lawyers. In December 2000 she spoke at a conference in Berlin. She said that human rights violations were taking place in Iran and that Iranian people expected the human rights record of Iran to be scrutinized. For this she was handed a four-year prison sentence.
In February 2001 she was permitted to leave Iran for medical treatment but has not returned since – she would face immediate imprisonment if she were to return. One of their daughters Leily is a human rights activist. Themes of justice pepper the blogs and academic research of his youngest daughter, Azadeh.
Siamak Pourzand was banned from leaving the country – he was never able to obtain a passport. While Azadeh made one short trip to Iran around five years ago, and savoured her time with her father, his wife was effectively denied an opportunity to see him in the final decade of his life. Letters to the authorities and to the Supreme Leader, seeking for assurances that she or other family members would be safe if they visited, went unanswered. The authorities knew no mercy in the case of the Pourzand family.
Even after death, he faced harassment: on the morning of Thursday 5 May friends and family had gathered at the Nour Mosque, in Fatemi Square, Tehran for the funeral service. Inexplicably, however, security officials prevented the ceremony from taking place, marking out the appalling lack of human decency that Siamak Pourzand faced in the last decade of his life.
In an open letter to her father, Azadeh Pourzand wrote:
“You promised me to wait at that same balcony. And then you could not wait anymore. I don’t blame you not even for one second. You had all the rights to seek freedom this way. Just know that the thought of your shattered head on that ground, your beautiful smile and all the things you have ever told me are both making me stay strong and die a hard death every second right now.”
In so many ways, Iranians in every region of the country strive to remain strong and yet over and over again, die a death every day. In this, Azadeh, you are not alone.
Unfair justice systems, in which arbitrariness is the sole constant, make people ‘alone’. They purposefully wear them down, and by delaying and denying medical care, they hasten their death.
But it is the will to remain strong that bursts through over and over again. We deal with human rights violations every day but by the same token, hear of acts carried out by other Iranian prisoners which show that human dignity and a thirst for justice remain undiminished amongst Iranians of every imaginable type.