Human Rights Abuses in Shahist Iran

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Human Rights Abuses in Shahist Iran


By: Amnesty International

Date: November 1976

Source: "Human Rights Abuses in Shahist Iran," Amnesty International Briefing: Iran. Amnesty International, November 1976.

About the Author: Amnesty International, founded in 1961, is an organization that campaigns globally for the abolition of torture, political imprisonment, and the death penalty.


In 1979, radical Islamists overthrew the Iranian government ruled by the hereditary king or "shah" of Iran, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980). One of the grievances that the rebels cited against his regime was its use of torture, especially by the secret police force SAVAK (Sazeman-i Ettelaat va Amniyat-i Keshvar, or Organization for Intelligence and National Security). In a 1976 document, Amnesty International detailed some of SAVAK's torture practices and stated that the shah's regime was one of the worst human rights violators in the world.

The shah's relationship with the United States and the United Kingdom was close, from his ascension to the throne in 1949 until his exile in 1979. During World War II, Iran was occupied by the United Kingdom and Soviet Union to preempt a Nazi invasion. During the occupation, the Allies forced the shah's father to abdicate, and the younger man was installed as constitutional monarch, sharing limited power with a national parliament and prime minister. In the early 1950s, the democratically elected Parliament and Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh (1882–1967), nationalized the oil industry and made other nationalistic moves that displeased the United Kingdom and the United States. In 1953, a coup engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and British intelligence deposed Mossadegh and elevated the shah to supreme power. He ruled until his deposition in 1979.

SAVAK was established in 1967 with help from both the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Its first director, General Teymur Bakhtiar, was dismissed in 1961 and died in 1970, probably assassinated on orders from the shah. From 1963 to 1979, thousands of political prisoners were tortured and executed, dissent was suppressed, and traditional Muslims were alienated by the shah's support of votes for women. (Arguably, however, the votes had little power, becasue the shah forbade all political parties except one.) To this day, little public information is available about SAVAK. It monitored all journalists, professors, labor unions—indeed, organizations of every type.

SAVAK also spied extensively on the 30,000 or so Iranian students in the United States, with thirteen full-time case officers devoted to this task. Students were an important part of the revolution against the shah, and it was primarily they who took over and occupied the U.S. embassy in Iran in November 1979. The students cited the admission of the exiled shah (who was dying of cancer) into the United States as justification for the embassy takeover. They took fifty-two Americans hostages and held them for 444 days, releasing them on January 20, 1981.


Human Rights Abuses in Shahist Iran

5. Location of Prisons

Before trial, political prisoners are detained in one of two prisons in Teheran…. After trial prisoners are transferred to other prisons, either in Teheran or in the provinces. These include Quasar prison, in Teheran; Hazel Gale prison, Teheran' Barajas prison, Bandar-Abbes prison, Adel-Abed prison and Shiraz prison in Shiraz, Booster prison, Saharan prison, Mashed prison, Sunman prison, Haves prison, Rash prison, Ark prison, Tapirs prison, Malabar prison, and Resaca prison. In addition to these there are in every provincial capital and large city Joint Committee of SAVAK and Police prisons which are used for interrogations. As well, in large and medium-size cities there are police prisons where political prisoners are detained at time of large scale arrests.

6. Prison Conditions

As I have never been given an opportunity by the Iranian authorities to visit prisons in Iran, the following information has been provided by former prisoners and the families of prisoners.

Prisoners held in pre-trial detention in the Committee and Evin prisons have no contact with other prisoners, or with the outside world, and are subjected to torture. They are locked up in small, damp cells with only a straw mattress on which to sleep. In these prisons, as in others, the extremes of temperature in Iran are an important factor. Lack of heating in the winter or cooling in the summer create extra hardship frequently remarked upon by prisoners. Washing facilities are inadequate and opportunities for washing are infrequent. Food rations are small and inadequate and no opportunities are provided for exercise. Papers, pencils and books are not allowed and prisoners are not given an opportunity to join communal prayer.

After trial, prisoners may be transferred to any of the prisons mentioned above, regardless of where their families live. This means that in many cases prisoners are not able to see their families for very long periods of time, and even when members of families have travelled long distances to visit prisoners they are still restricted to 15 minutes' visiting time, or less. Food is usually inadequate and of poor quality and this often leads to malnutrition, food poisoning or chronic illness. Medical treatment is practically non-existent and prisoners are hardly ever seen by a doctor, sent to hospital or allowed to receive medicines. Discipline is severe and in cases of indiscipline prisoners may be put into solitary confinement for anything up to three or four months. Maltreatment and torture do not always cease after trial and in some cases prisoners who are regarded as being difficult are sent back to the Committee or Evin prisons for further torture. Former prisoners have stated that they are convinced that the harsh conditions and maltreatment are intended to break the prisoner, with the aim of making him or her recant. This view is supported by the appearance on television, from time to time, of political prisoners who repudiate their previously-held opinions and express their support for the Shah's policies.

Although article 131 of the Iranian Penal code expressly prohibits torture, the practice of holding prisoners incommunicado for long periods before trial, together with the importance for the prosecution of obtaining a confession, creates a situation in which prisoners are very likely to be ill-treated, and all the information received by AI over the past decade confirms that torture does invariably occur during the period between arrest and trial. All observers to trials since 1965 have reported allegations of torture which have been made by defendants and have expressed their own conviction that prisoners are tortured for the purpose of obtaining confessions. Alleged methods of torture include whipping and beating, electric shocks, the extraction of nails and teeth, boiling water pumped into the rectum, heavy weights hung on the testicles, tying the prisoner to a metal table heated to white heat, inserting a broken bottle into the anus, and rape.

Maitre Nora Albia in his report on his mission to Iran in January/February 1972 on behalf of the international association of Democratic Lawyers, describes an exchange between a defendant, Masoud Ahmadzadeh, and the prosecutor in which Ahmadzadeh stated that his confession had been obtained by torture. During the course of the trial Ahmadzadeh, thinking that Maitre Albala was a foreign journalist, suddenly pulled off his sweater and showed the lawyer appalling burns on his stomach and back which appeared to be several months old. During a subsequent conversation with another defendant, Nasser Sadegh, Maitre Albala was told that Massoud Ahmadzadeh and other defendants had been burned by being placed on a table which was then heated to white heat, and that one of those so treated, Badizadeghan, had since then been paralysed in the lower limbs and could move only by crawling forward using his upper arms. Nasser Sadegh also said that he saw one prisoner, Behruz Tehrani, die near him in the torture room.

A recent, detailed account of his own torture and that of other prisoners has been given by Reza Baraheni, a released prisoner now resident in the United States of America.

Most of the horrible instruments were located on the second floor. I was not taken there, but the office of my interrogator, Dr Rezvan, was next to this chamber, and one day when he was called to another office for some sort of consultation, I walked into the room, glanced round it and then went back. It resembles an ancient Egyptian tomb and is reserved for those suspected of being terrorists or accused of having made attempts on the life of the Shah or a member of the royal Family. Not every prisoner goes through the same process, but generally, this is what happens to a prisoner of the first importance. First he is beaten by several torturers at once, with sticks and clubs. If he doesn't confess, he is hanged upside down and beaten; if this doesn't work, he is raped; and if he still shows signs of resistance, he is given electric shock which turns him into a howling dog; and if he is still obstinate, his nails and sometimes all his teeth are pulled out, and in certain exceptional cases, a hot iron rod is put into one side of the face to force its way to the other side, burning the entire mouth and the tongue. A young man was killed in this way….

Allegations of deaths under torture are not uncommon. One instance is cited above; another is the death of Ayatollah Haj Hosssen Ghafari Azar Shari, a religious leader in the city of Qom, who was arrested in August 1974 and died on 28 December 1974, following torture. Nine deaths which were announced in April 1975 of political prisoners who had been in prison since 1968 and were allegedly "shot while trying to escape" may have been due to torture. The official account of the deaths contained discrepancies and the families were never allowed to have the bodies for burial.

The renewed use of torture, after trial and conviction, is alleged to take place in Iran. In the case referred to above, the nine prisoners who died were part of a much larger group of prisoners who had been brought to Teheran from other prisons and were allegedly being tortured to persuade them to give support to the Shah's newly announced one-party state.

When questioned about the use of torture in his country, the Shah has never denied that it occurs. In a recent interview reported in Le Monde on 1 October 1976, the Shah replied to a question about the use of torture by saying: "Why should we not employ the same methods as you Europeans? We have learned sophisticated methods of torture from you. You use psychological methods to extract the truth: we do the same."

8. Released Prisoners

Prisoners who have recanted may eventually be judged to have expiated their crimes and be allowed to live a normal life, but most released prisoners are kept under surveillance and suffer constant harassment from SAVAK, which extends to the treatment of their families. They are unable to obtain employment without the permission of SAVAK and this permission is rarely granted. Prisoners tried by military tribunals automatically suffer the loss of their civil rights for 10 years, regardless of the length of their sentence….

In addition to the violations already referred to there is little respect demonstrated for human rights in many other areas of Iranian life. Freedom of speech and association are non-existent. The press is strictly censored and has been dramatically curtailed in recent years since the shah decreed that every newspaper with a circulation of less than 3,000 and periodicals with a circulation of less than 5,000 should be shut down. Trade unions are illegal and workers' protests are dealt with severely, sometimes resulting in imprisonment and deaths. Political activity is restricted to participation in the Rastakhiz Party. Some Iranians have difficulty in obtaining, or are refused, passports. This restriction on freedom of movement applies especially to released political prisoners and members of their families. Academic freedom is also restricted and students and university teachers are kept under surveillance by SAVAK. A recent account concerns a professor of literature who was harassed, beaten, arrested and tortured because his courses had been deemed as not conforming to the "ideology" of the "White Revolution" of the shah, in that he had failed to refer to it.


Iran's revolution, which overthrew the shah, was the first Islamist revolution in modern times. It was the result of many factors, but hatred for SAVAK's cruelty was certainly a contributing factor. Iran's government has been passionately anti-American since 1979. Much of this history might have been different had the United States not contributed to the founding of SAVAK in the 1950s and publicly supported the shah throughout his increasingly cruel regime.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter, who had said that human rights were the "soul of our foreign policy," praised the Shah as a wise ruler and, toasting the Shah during a state visit to Iran, told him that "Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you and to your majesty and to your leadership and to the respect, admiration, and love which your people give to you." In 1979, the former chief Iran analyst for the CIA, Jesse J. Leaf, told New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh that prior to 1973 the CIA had worked closely with SAVAK and the Shah had known of the torture of dissenters. Leaf also stated that a senior CIA officer had been "involved in instructing officials in the Savak on torture techniques … based on German torture techniques from World War II." Shredded documents from the captured U.S. embassy were painstakingly reassembled by hand after the revolution, producing documents that showed CIA collaboration with SAVAK.

Several writers have argued that the rise of anti-American terror organizations such as Al Qaeda in recent years is partly due to U.S. support for oppressive regimes in Islamic countries such as Iran. According to Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent, "I think it's not an exaggeration to say that you can draw a line from the American sponsorship of the 1953 coup in Iran, through the Shah's repressive regime, to the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the spread of militant religious fundamentalism that produced waves of anti-Western terrorism." This thesis is controversial.

The Islamist Iranian revolutionary regime replaced SAVAK with a similar organization, VEVAK (Vezarat-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Keshvar, Ministry of Intelligence and Security). According to a 2005 report by Amnesty International, the human rights situation in Iran continues to be grim; torture remains widespread, punishments such as beheading and amputation of the tongue have been introduced, and the death penalty "continues to be handed down for charges such as 'enmity against God' or 'morality crimes' that do not reflect internationally recognized criminal charges"



Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.


Hersh, Seymour M. "Ex-Analyst Says CIA Rejected Warning on Shah." New York Times. (January 7, 1989): A3.

Web sites

Amnesty International. "Report 2005: Iran" 〈〉 (accessed April 25, 2006).

U.S. Library of Congress. "Library of Congress Country Studies: Iran—Savak." December 1987 〈〉 (accessed April 25, 2006).

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Human Rights Abuses in Shahist Iran

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