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Iranian opposition leader's wife recounts their captivity

In an interview with Al-Monitor, the wife of Iran's Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, Fatemeh Karroubi, shares details about her and her husband's house arrest as well as his demands.

Mehdi Karroubi, the two-time speaker of parliament, was among the closest members of the inner circle of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After serving prison sentences during the regime of the former shah of Iran, in 2011, he was again detained and imprisoned following a demonstration of members of the Iranian opposition in support of the people of Egypt and Tunisia. This month marks his fourth year under house arrest as he approaches his 80th birthday.

Karroubi’s followers consider him a leader of the Green Movement, the movement that was born out of opposition to the 2009 presidential elections, in which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared victor.

Fatemeh Karroubi, who answered Al-Monitor’s questions via email, spent a period in detention alongside her husband but was later released. This is her first interview in four years. A former member of parliament herself, she revealed previously unpublicized details of the house arrest and said that while some aspects of her husband’s house arrest have improved slightly (such as access to newspapers and a visit by Iran’s new health minister), Mehdi Karroubi remains steadfast and continues to demand an open trial, something he so far has not been granted.

The full interview, translated from Persian, follows:

Al-Monitor:  It seems that before the arrest of Karroubi in his house — in fact, a month before it and during Ramadan, which is holy to Muslims — there had been some attacks on the house of Karroubi. Is that correct?

Karroubi:  Yes, during Ramadan they attacked the apartment three nights in a row and not only caused damages, but shouted many obscenities and insults toward us as well. They had encircled the house and did not let anyone enter or exit. When Karroubi and [Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein] Mousavi asked for permission for a demonstration to support the people of Egypt and Tunisia on Feb. 14, 2011, our house was put under siege starting on the 21st. The home phone and my mobile, as well as those of [our sons] Muhammad Taqi and Muhammad Hossein, were disconnected. Karroubi and I were also imprisoned in our own house.

Al-Monitor:  But after that Friday prayer sermon, when [Ayatollah] Ahmad Jannati threatened Karroubi and Mousavi with disconnecting their phone and cutting off their connection to the people, rumors of house arrest could be heard.

Karroubi:  Jannati only read what was handed to him during that sermon. The plan was to sever the political connections between Karroubi and Mousavi and their followers, but what happened was quite different. The government did not even follow through on its own word and plan. Now they are not even willing to accept responsibility for the actions that they have undertaken.

Al-Monitor:  So, how did the detention of you and Karroubi start? Tell us about the initial days and hours.

Karroubi:  Starting at midnight Feb. 15, for five days, about 40-50 [plainclothes officers], under the protection of intelligence operatives, would come to our door and shout insults and damage the property. At the time, the intelligence operatives did not let anyone, including the children, grandchildren and even Karroubi's elder sister stop by for more than a few minutes. At the same time, intelligence operatives would allow the the thugs do whatever they wanted. One of the worst nights was the early morning of Feb. 21, 2011, when the thugs threw in a percussion grenade. That evening, the operatives attacked the house and the house arrest officially started.

Al-Monitor:  How many operatives entered the house?

Karroubi:  More than 60.

Al-Monitor:  During the time that you spent alongside Karroubi, was there ever an official sentence handed to you from the court?

Karroubi:  The warrant to search the house is the only legal paper that has ever been produced. The arrest and detention have taken place against the law and are against the constitution, the criminal code and the Islamic punitive code.

Al-Monitor:  Did they change the layout of the house? Did they move the furniture and fittings?

Karroubi:  Yes. The operatives, upon entering the house, removed all of our documents, books and other personal items and even took my medicines and those of Karroubi. They even removed the bathtub and the bathroom fan. I am not sure what they were looking for in the house of the former speaker of parliament of the Islamic Republic. Their behavior was very inhumane. I have had several experiences of dealing with the shah’s SAVAK (secret police) before the revolution. The behavior of the [intelligence] operatives on that night was considerably more violent and vicious. They went on searching the house until the morning call to prayer and left only the bed, the furniture and the carpets. They locked all the doors and confined our lives to a corner of the apartment. All windows were covered; the locks were changed and keys were given to the operatives, and we were imprisoned in part of our house, whose contents were carried away. In the first few days, no one checked on us. The trash was left in the kitchen and it stank, the smell covering the whole apartment. The situation was almost unbearable, but they would not open the doors. I could not remove the trash. But after a few days and with the checking of the operatives, the situation improved.

Al-Monitor:  In the pictures that were released later, we could see a 12 square meter [129 square foot] room where we were told Karroubi was kept under arrest. Was his bathroom also included in these 12 meters?

Karroubi:  That picture is from the 100 days of arrest in the 7th Tir building, in a small apartment with minimum facilities. We lived in an apartment complex, so the attack of the operatives resulted in the loss of our neighbors' property. The whole of the building was turned into a large prison, and so our neighbors could not access their own apartments. The operatives were using the apartments in place of their owners. This was obviously illegal and against the religious laws, and initiated a serious protest and ultimatum from Karroubi. After a few months, they agreed to move Karroubi to a building near the 7th Tir Square so the neighbors could access their properties.

Al-Monitor:  How involved are the intelligence operatives in the daily life of the prisoners? Do they also enter the house and the rooms, or are they just standing outside the doors to stop people from meeting the prisoners?

Karroubi:  After the 7th Tir building, they moved him to a safe house in the Sadr Highway area of Tehran, which lacked basic residential facilities. Karroubi was under arrest in this building until February of last year, deprived of sunlight and fresh air. Just imagine, close to 1,000 days of arrest without access to natural light and fresh air. After last February’s surgery, my husband was moved to our house in Jamaran [northern Tehran], where he now has access to his books. The first floor is occupied by the operatives and the second floor is for me and Karroubi.

Al-Monitor:  Access to a telephone, newspapers, television, books and other items — based on the letter of law — is allowed for prisoners. Is this provided to those under house arrest as well?

Karroubi:  Provisioning the basic rights of a prisoner has been an important preoccupation of the family from the beginning. Unfortunately, Karroubi was deprived of his basic rights for quite a long time. In fact, this detention does not follow any rules. We have laws in the country based on which we should consider the issue of house arrest and the rights of those detained in this situation. However, house arrest has not been defined in the laws of our country. Inflicting punishment without due process and legal prosecution is itself a criminal act. Until now, however, the government has refused to follow due process and has imposed detention and captivity without any legal or procedural framework. In this situation, the rights of the prisoners are undetermined and vague and are practically left to the whim of those imposing the detention. So, it very much depends on the individual operatives. In the first three years, accessing many basic rights was not possible, and still has no legal basis. For example, access to newspapers or a telephone connection is not like that of other prisoners. All land lines are disconnected, and only the two nonpolitical newspapers, Ettelaat and Hamshahri, are provided to Karroubi.

Al-Monitor: Do those kept under house arrest have the right to see their families? How do these meetings happen?

Karroubi:  The family visits have recently been regulated, and the children come once a week to see him. However, Hossein [Karroubi's son] is still not allowed to see his father.

Al-Monitor:  Do the guards enter into discussions with the prisoner?

Karroubi:  No.

Al-Monitor:  Do the guards act as messengers from those who have been involved in ordering the house arrest?

Karroubi:  No.

Al-Monitor:  When did you realize that the order for the arrest and detention of you and Karroubi had been issued by [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]?

Karroubi:  Well, actually, up to now, no official in the country has accepted the responsibility for this detention. We have heard that the judicial and police forces have placed the responsibility for this illegal act on the leader’s shoulders. Many contradictory things have been said in the past four years that in fact show the confusion among the administrators of the Islamic Republic. We should probably look for the roots of this confusion in the very fact that the detention and imprisonment is illegal and not legally defined. In the opinion of our family, the entirety of the Islamic Republic’s government is responsible for this illegal act.

Al-Monitor:  We hear that the living costs of the prisoners are actually paid by their families. Is this correct?

Karroubi:  When he was in the safe house, I paid part of the costs of the detention in the form of rent. The fact was that the intelligence operatives wished to use this trick to justify their unusual actions, communicating to the people and international community that Karroubi was in fact simply kept in his own house. I wrote an open letter to the judiciary explaining and warning about this, but no one was really listening.

Al-Monitor:  Do you purchase the food and grocery needs of Karroubi’s household?

Karroubi:  Yes.

Al-Monitor:  Why did they separate you from Karroubi?

Karroubi:  My exit from the internment was due to a need for medical treatment. They then moved Karroubi to a one-bedroom apartment near the 7th Tir Square, where he spent 100 days alongside 10 operatives and without access to fresh air and natural light. In that situation, they told me that I cannot be returned to confinement. I waited until they moved to the safe house, but they still did not allow me to return, and this time they told me that they have no orders to keep me under arrest as well. We had never seen a judicial order anyway, but I kept insisting to return to Karroubi's side and they kept rejecting it. At the time, they wanted Karroubi to remain in confinement, and they got what they wanted. Unfortunately, the conditions of captivity caused him serious physical harm, and even four different surgeries have not been able to correct the damage. In one situation, for four months no one saw him and even the operatives would only check on him twice a day, and just for a few minutes.

Al-Monitor:  How does Karroubi come to learn of current affairs these days?

Karroubi:  The official state television is the only channel at Karroubi’s disposal — and of course, that is an amazing lie-broadcasting agency. In the meanwhile, the children during their visits and I during my comings and goings bring the news to him as well.

Al-Monitor:  Has there been anyone in the current administration or those close and aligned with it who might have wished to relay a message to Karroubi?

Karroubi:  Dr. [Hassan Gazizadeh] Hashemi, the honorable minister of health and medical education, has been the only member of the administration who has visited my husband. He has done this, though, because of his medical specialty, meaning that the visits have been in his capacity as a doctor, not as a minister and administrator. His kindness and attention have nothing to do with the administration.

Al-Monitor:  How have the operatives and the guards behaved toward Karroubi in these four years? Has the change of administration resulted in any change in the behavior and dealings of the operatives, whether positive or negative?

Karroubi:  The change in administration, after a few months, resulted in a change of intelligence personnel and detention guards. Karroubi never had a problem with these people, anyway, as he considers them simple agents with no blame for following orders. The current guards and personnel are polite and honorable.

Al-Monitor:  Karroubi was instrumental in the formation of the Islamic Republic; did he ever foresee such a situation?

Karroubi:  Since the beginning of my marriage to Karroubi in 1962, he was involved in political activities. He was arrested nine times during the reign of the former shah of Iran. The revolutionaries remember the role of Karroubi and his father, the late Ayatollah A’shaikh Ahmad Karroubi, in the Islamic Revolution. Unlike those who claim to be the heirs of the revolution these days, we belong to the hard and wintry days of the revolution.

The revolution happened so people could take their destiny in their own hands. It was supposed to make Iran and Iranians proud. What has happened in the past few years in the name of the revolution has been truly lamentable. It was natural for someone like Karroubi, whose life’s work has been this revolution, not to stand for these problems and rise up in favor of reform. Karroubi could not simply rest on his laurels and prioritize his comfort and that of his family, turning a blind eye to the situation and staying quiet. He stepped onto the path of reform with such expectations and beliefs, and he realized that it was not easy, and thus predicted such hard days as well.

Al-Monitor:  When was the last meeting between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Karroubi?

Karroubi:  Before the 2009 presidential elections.

Al-Monitor:  Recently, Karroubi sent a message to Rouhani, the president, in which he insisted on his human rights. This shows that he is keeping to the same path that he had declared before the 2009 elections, correct?

Karroubi:  Karroubi’s preoccupation is the plight of the people, those unknown and under-represented members of society who have dealt with much pressure in recent years. In his message to Rouhani, he urged the president to use his momentum and insist on protecting the rights of the people as stated in the third chapter of the constitution. For Karroubi, the path is the same, and he is standing as firm as before. He has a lot to say, and wants nothing for himself. He has told the operatives several times to move him to Evin Prison so the government is forced to go through the legal process and put him on trial. It has been five years that the government, using state media as its own mouthpiece, has refused to listen, has made accusations and spread lies and has prevented us from responding and defending ourselves. However, as you can see, all these smear campaigns have not changed people’s views. The childish and embarrassing words of people like Jannati, who without any trials or due process issues a death sentence, are along the same lines. Karroubi has repeatedly said that he is ready to be prosecuted based on Directive 168 of the constitution, which provides for a public and open trial.

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