Saeed Malekpour Computer Engineer and Software Designer On Iran’s Death Row
The pain bores through the night like a red hot needle: a torturer’s tool embedded in the body and brain. But there’s no escaping the night, or the day that relentlessly follows.
Try to relax. Pretend the bruising concrete floor is the bed you once knew. That the slimy mat that covers you is your blanket. That the stench of three dozen unwashed bodies, the rattling breath of the sick and injured, is the nightmare from which you’ll awake. That the sunless dungeon of your reality will not be your tomb,The prisoner Evin Prison Ward 350.
How did it come to this?
In the 1,232 days and nights since his arrest, Saeed Malekpour has asked himself that question. Each day takes him no closer to the answer, but closer to the enigma of his death.
For most of his 36 years Malekpour was a problem-solver, a man with a workaround mind. His family’s troubleshooter. The cleverest in his class.
The Canadian resident, top-ranked engineering graduate, software designer is now awaiting execution in Iran’s Evin Prison.
Arrested in 2008 while visiting his dying father, accused of managing a network of websites used to upload pornographic images, tortured and condemned to death after a trial without defence, Malekpour is living in an Iranian Kafka novel from which there is no exit.
To his family, it is an unimaginable fate for an eldest son who could fix everything from toys and electrical gadgets to hurt feelings and family feuds. Who bore the burden when his middle-aged father’s health declined, and who became the nominal head of the family of four while still too young to start his own.
Saeed worked hard to get higher education. He was the family confidante — the one they turned to for support. When he got a job in Iran’s biggest car plant, he helped pay his siblings’ university fees.
But the quick-witted man whose hobby was chess is now a pawn in a deadly political game. For its real and suspected opponents, the Islamic Republic has become a culture of cruelty cloaked in clerical garb.
Human rights monitors say executions in Iran have been accelerating at an alarming pace. Amnesty International’s official count for 2010 was 252, but the actual number is believed to be double that — more than 600 people in 2011, and 59 last month alone.
Unwittingly, Malekpour was drawn into the game, from the time he left his home in Canada and landed in Evin Prison’s subterranean ward 350, and a windowless solitary confinement cell. To a death sentence, a daily wait for a hangman’s rope that has taken so many lives that the remains of the victims could fill a small town. Many were simply caught up in the deadly traps of the regime.
For Malekpour, most at home on a hiking trail, the dank walls of the prison are the worst kind of trap.
“When I first met Saeed in Iran 12 years ago,he and Fatima (Mohamad’s sister) and I would go hiking and biking together,” says his brother-in-law Mohamad Eftekhari. “He was full of energy, a real outdoor guy. I never heard him talk about politics.”
Eftekhari, now 27 and living in Toronto, was delighted at Saeed’s marriage to his older sister. He had gained a mentor, an older brother who shared his passion for computers.
Even when Saeed and Fatima Eftekhari — a brilliant science scholarship student — came to Canada eight years ago so she could continue her studies, Mohamad would call him for help with software problems.
It was Fatima who had planned the couple’s future, and the move from Tehran to Canada — first to St. Catharines, where she attended Brock University, then to Vancouver Island. She would finish her PhD there, at the University of Victoria, and he would follow in her academic footsteps.
Malekpour’s mechanical engineering degree was from a prestigious Tehran university, but without Canadian experience his job search was stymied. That would change, he hoped, with a Canadian degree. In the meantime, his computer skills earned money for his school fees.
“Their life was good in Victoria,” says Mohamad. “It’s beautiful there and they made lots of friends. They loved the outdoor life and the weather. Fatima was finishing her degree and looking for a job.”
By the fall of 2008 she was enrolled in a post-doctoral degree at University of Toronto and preparing for their move east, to a new home in Richmond Hill.
They were picture-perfect immigrants on the upward trail to success.
In October 2008, the fatal illness of Saeed’s father jolted their lives in a way neither could imagine. His malignant brain tumour had progressed, leaving him only days to live, and Saeed made an urgent trip to Tehran. A Canadian permanent resident, with protection under the Charter of Rights, he was awaiting citizenship and uninvolved in Iranian politics. Nor did he give any thought to the country’s political problems.
But Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, it appeared, was lying in wait for him. Or, some suggest, for anyone of his description: an expatriate, a computer expert. Someone who might be spreading sedition from the West to Iran. Who might be aiding and abetting young Iranian dissidents. An enemy of the state who could be paraded to fuel fear in a restive public that had lost faith in the government.
“At its heart,” says Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “Malekpour’s conviction is (an attempt) to stoke fear by suppressing user-generated content and Internet applications” that allowed Iranians to interact in cyberspace. The guards made it clear he would be an example to others.
“Failure to carry out swift punishment using all legal means would hurt crime prevention and increase the brazenness of (cyber) criminals,” said a statement issued after Malekpour’s death sentence. And it added that the Revolutionary Guard had plans to make other arrests on similar charges — a warning to Iranians who use the Internet for personal or political purposes.
Indeed, Malekpour’s case appeared to be a test run for the fledgling cyber crimes unit’s crackdown on the Internet. Within days of his arrival, he was seized on a Tehran street, blindfolded, beaten and thrown in Evin on charges he could scarcely comprehend. Insulting Islam. Debauching Iranian youth. Corrupting the earth — which carried a potential sentence of death.
The charges focused on his contract work as a web designer in Canada, and expanded to accuse him of running “the biggest anti-religion pornographic Farsi network.” Malekpour and his family denied he had any knowledge of such a network, and said he had only created image-sharing software that could have been used to upload such images without his knowledge.
Protests of innocence met with more beatings, kicks to the head, lashings with cables, according to a letter he later wrote from jail. His jaw was smashed and his teeth broken. Half his body was temporarily paralyzed. There were threats of rape and a slow death in a blazing furnace room.
“Confess,” they told him. “You’ll feel better and the public will never know.” Solitary confinement followed, in a coffin-like cell. At the end of his endurance, Saeed gave in. But the interrogators had lied. The videotaped “confession” was quickly circulated on Iranian media as absolute evidence of his guilt. Seeing it, his ailing mother had a heart attack.
The Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence agents were satisfied, and their new cyber crimes department vindicated. They had their man.
“When Saeed was arrested we didn’t know what to do,” said Mohamad Eftekhari. “Fatima arrived in Iran, and I was still living there. We hadn’t a clue about why he was taken. He had no political involvement and he’d done nothing wrong. For three months, we went to the judiciary, to attorneys. Everyone ignored us.”
The family had plunged down the rabbit hole of the Iranian justice system.
“It was difficult to get a lawyer. They knew that if the Revolutionary Guard was involved, nothing could be done.”
The corps — set up by Ayatollah Khomeini — is much feared in Iran. Transformed in three decades from a ragtag band of zealots to sleek power-brokers, financial moguls and masterminds of a growing intelligence service that is seeking control of cyberspace, they play off rival government factions with dexterity.
Since the protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2009 election, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has distanced himself from Ahmadinejad. Meanwhile, members of Iran’s multi-layered power structures — built to balance its shifting forces and maintain authority — have polarized around the two men. The Revolutionary Guard has become kingmaker.
“(They) had to make a choice,” says Mehrzad Boroujerdi of Syracuse University, an expert on Iran’s politics. “They rightfully reckoned that the ultimate power-holder is Khamenei. There are rumours that he is preparing for Ahmadinejad to go, and has told the guards to be ready to function as a caretaker government if needed.”
With a vast surveillance network, they are well prepared.
“They have wires in people’s bedrooms, they tap phone conversations, they have compromising information on people who are close to the leadership and they can kill political careers,” says Boroujerdi. “The real power of the guards is setting the political agenda.”
Iran has reason to fall back on its time-tested enforcers. It is under deepening sanctions for its suspected nuclear ambitions — driving down a deteriorating economy and threatening a currency devaluation. A recipe for unrest.
Since Malekpour’s arrest, the Revolutionary Guard has accelerated its assault on the Internet. A March 2 parliamentary election is nearing, and with it efforts to stamp out the kind of social networking that led to the Arab Spring.
In addition, assassinations of Iranian nuclear personnel by suspected Israeli or U.S. forces — and possible revenge attacks on Israeli diplomats abroad — have ratcheted up tensions with Tehran’s foes. Some fear an American military assault. As pressures increase, so does the crackdown on suspected enemies.
All this weighs heavily on Malekpour, isolated in his cell from the outside world.
Political motives were already evident during his interrogation, his trial and its aftermath. Condemned to death by a Revolutionary Court after the October 2010 trial, he was allowed no defence from his lawyer, and his forced confession was used as evidence. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which suspended the sentence.
But last November the judges backtracked. They said the verdict had “discrepancies” that must be reviewed and they handed the case back to the court that made the original ruling. Unsurprisingly, the death sentence was confirmed.
“Iran has an injustice system,” says Payam Akhavan, a McGill international law professor and co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. “It has a series of vague laws relating to security, morality, waging war on God. They can be manipulated at will to prosecute, intimidate and eliminate dissidents.”
Because the courts have little independence from the regime — including the Revolutionary Guard — Akhavan says, they can do “little or nothing” to preserve justice in politically charged cases like Malekpour’s.
Malekpour is not alone. Canadian Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Toronto shoe salesman, is also on death row on espionage charges that are widely condemned as politically motivated. His family believes they relate to suspicions about his brother, a former Iranian naval officer who was arrested shortly before him, in 2008, and died in Evin. Meanwhile Canadian Hossein Derakhshan, known as Iran’s “blogfather” is serving close to 20 years in jail.
“Malekpour’s case is special,” says Maziar Bahari, author of Then They Came For Me, on his own time as a political prisoner in Evin.
“He’s among the first that the Revolutionary Guard’s cyber crimes department arrested. They even mentioned him several times (in the media), saying that they have the technological savvy to hack into websites and lure people back into Iran. He’s like a trophy for them.”
“Before I met Saeed I heard the guards in the hallway gossiping about him,” says former prisoner Arman Rezakhani, speaking by phone from his current home in Texas. “They were saying he’s from Canada and his case file is about 7,000 pages long.”
Rezakhani’s voice is shaky and sometimes trails off into silence. Especially when recounting his 2010 jail-cell friendship with Malekpour, whom he calls “a brother.”
“I was a top math student and into computers. Saeed had graduated from one of the best universities and he also loved computers. We had an immediate connection.”
It deepened as 19-year-old Rezakhani spoke of his own despair at being arrested and sentenced to two years as a dissident — a move, he believes, to keep him from reopening the case of his father’s murder years earlier.
“I started to tell him how much I had gone through, how they were torturing me. And Saeed said, ‘well, listen to my story.’”
Malekpour had managed to send a letter from prison detailing what he described as torture, which left him with painful long-term injuries. The news reports that followed infuriated the Revolutionary Guard, which redoubled efforts to convict him.
“One very obvious sign of what he’d suffered was that they broke his teeth and jaw,” said Rezakhani. “It was also infected. He managed to keep up his spirits. But then they put him in solitary confinement after the letter came out.
“The worst for Saeed was the psychological torture, when they said ‘we have your wife and we’re doing this to her’ or ‘we know where your sister is now.’ That wrecked him. When he came back to our ward he was like a different person. He was in bad shape. He began to snap at everyone.”
The conditions the two men endured in the general ward for political prisoners have been documented and deplored by human rights groups.
“The food was not even recognizable as food,” said Rezakhani. “In the winter, the cell was very cold and they turned on the air conditioning so people would get sick. But only one prisoner a week was allowed to see a doctor. Once, when it was Saeed’s turn, he was very sick with fever and chills but he gave his appointment to me.”
With more than 30 men in a windowless cell two stories below ground, some slept on squalid cots, others on the filthy floor, covered by rough mats. One hundred and fifty prisoners shared three toilets. Exercise was an occasional walk in a dank courtyard so narrow that many prisoners preferred to stay put.
But unlike Malekpour, Rezakhani had an end to his torment. He was released — leaving behind the man who had become his closest friend.
“We just hugged and cried,” he said, his voice breaking. “Saeed said ‘don’t make the same mistake I did by coming back to this country. Just get the hell out.’”
Malekpour remains in Evin Prison, where the line between life and death is as thin as the strand of a rope. He waits daily for the executioner’s call, which could come at any time, without warning.
“In jail only your family, your memories, your inner strength keep you sane,” says author Bahari. “But if you are an unknown person, with no public pressure, you have much less chance.”
“I think Malekpour’s case is very serious,” says Syracuse University’s Boroujerdi. “After the assassinations, they are getting more paranoid. Anything to do with computers, or the military, is a red flag.
“If the Canadian government wants to help they must play hard ball, as the British do. Many Revolutionary Guards have gone and invested money in Canada. It’s a destination of choice for them. They have to be told in the strongest terms that there is a transaction cost.”