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Inside a brutal regime: Exiled filmmaker warns of dangers posed by Iranian islamic regime

"Sometimes there were two groups on Wednesdays, 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sometimes three. But always there were executions at 8 p.m., every Wednesday.” Abdi Hezarkhani, recalling time served in Tehran’s Evin Prison
By JACK TODD, Special to Postmedia News January 31, 2012
"Sometimes there were two groups on Wednesdays, 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sometimes three. But always there were executions at 8 p.m., every Wednesday.” Abdi Hezarkhani, recalling time served in Tehran’s Evin Prison
Photograph by: Marie-France Coallier, THE GAZETTE
On the street outside St. Lambert Elementary Tuesday morning, a zealous Longueuil police officer began handing out $52 parking tickets to parents who live outside the zone and drive their children to school .
The parents, as they do every morning, had left their cars for a few moments in the drop-off zone to walk their children to the school gate. When one parent objected to the tickets, the cop told him that he should get a job and send his children to school on the bus “like all working people" .
The cop could not have known how disquieting such a petty abuse of authority could be for the soft-spoken, dignified, unassuming middle-aged man who was told to send his children to school on the bus .
For Abdi Hezarkhani, such petty tyranny brings back the most horrifying memories of torture, executions and a jail cell in Tehran, three metres by six metres, crammed with 100 prisoners, packed in so tightly that when one turned over at night, they all had to turn .
For Hezarkhani, an exiled Iranian filmmaker living quietly on the South Shore, the fear now is that the leadership in Tehran is within a year or less of developing a nuclear weapon, after which he has not the slightest doubt what they will try to do .
"They have always made it clear,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “They say, ‘the Mideast belongs to us. Iraq belongs to us. First Baghdad, then Tel Aviv" .
On Tuesday, the European Union announced an outright ban on oil exports from Iran, another step in the sanctions aimed at halting the Iranian nuclear program by peaceful means. The regime, once again, responded by threatening to close the vital Strait of Hormuz to shipping .
Hezarkhani was not surprised at the reaction from Tehran. He contends that the regime wants to provoke the U.S. and NATO to attack. “They want it,” he says, “because for them, they don’t care how many people are killed. They want it for the prestige. For them, it’s prestige, to fight the U.S" .
Hezarkhani works tirelessly to alert the West to the dangers that would be posed by an Iranian regime armed with nuclear weapons. He is one of the co-founders of the pro-democracy Green Party of Iran, which is banned in the country but which has members around the world, with the largest chapters in Germany and the U.S .
In explaining the Green Party’s position, Hezarkhani writes: “I believe that for the current Iranian regime, the one and only goal of their nuclear weapons project is to avoid being ousted from power. Therefore, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) will never concede on this issue. The regime’s negotiations with the west are only to buy time – an agreement has never been their intention" .
The regime, Hezarkhani says, believes that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the West will be forced to deal, as it deals with North Korea. And if the leaders back down on the issue, the Iranian people will see it as a sign of weakness and will be encouraged to topple the regime .
Hezarkhani is also one of those trying to draw attention to the plight of the between 3,400 and 3,500 Iranian refugees trapped at Camp Ashraf in Iraq’s Diyala province, 120 kilometres west of the Iranian border .
The camp is a base for the exiled People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, an organization with its headquarters in Paris. It was under the protection of the U.S. but since control of the camp passed from the U.S. military to Iraq in 2009, Iranian exiles and Amnesty International have charged that residents of the camp have been massacred in multiple incidents by Iraqi soldiers firing indiscriminately or driving armoured vehicles into the crowd .
(In Ottawa last fall, the House subcommittee on human rights expressed concern over the situation at Camp Ashraf and confirmed that the “citizens of Camp Ashraf have faced ongoing harassment and intimidation by both the Iraqi and Iranian governments." )
Those who know him slightly would never take Hezarkhani for a man who has seen the worst of the underbelly of the Iranian regime. A househusband with two young sons, Hezarkhani tends the home front for his wife, a software engineer. He cooks and cleans and shops and ferries his boys to and from school. He tends his garden, tinkers with old barbecues, makes pear wine and his own maple syrup. He volunteers at the school library .
Surprisingly, he says his experience in an Iranian prison did not leave him with nightmares although it weakened his heart and damaged his back so badly he needed surgery
Hezarkhani, who has been a Canadian citizen for 20 years now, was raised a Marxist in Iran, not a Muslim. (“Not a Soviet Marxist,” he hastens to add, “a nationalist Marxist.”) His goal, as a young man, was to overthrow the government of the Shah Reza Pahlavi and to install a democracy in Iran. On mountain retreats, he had training in weapons and how to withstand torture .
The training might have saved his life. When the Shah was overthrown in 1979, Hezarkhani was ready. He took his rifle and went to join the revolution. But as he arrived at one military stronghold after another, he found them all deserted: the Shah’s militias had all fled or were under arrest .
At last, he learned the fate of the four generals who backed the Shah. He wanted to see them tried in court, but they were taken to the roof of a religious school by Revolutionary Guards loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini, marched to the edge of the roof, and shot. At that moment, Hezarkhani realized the revolution was lost, because Khomeini and his brutal supporters did not believe in democracy .
Hezarkhani, who had a university degree from the College of Film and Television in Tehran, was teaching at the school at the time. After the ayatollahs took power, he was fired and went to work for Channel 2 television. After his arrest in 1981, he was fired from the television station because he failed to show up for work .
His arrest had nothing to do with Hezarkhani’s anti-regime politics. It was a case of mistaken identity: Someone under interrogation had told them that Dr. Manouchehr Hezarkhani was Abdi Hezarkhani’s father .
But Dr. Hezarkhani, a celebrated Iranian writer living in exile in Paris, was Hezarkhani’s uncle, not his father, a nicety lost on the regime. Hezarkhani was arrested and for three days, he was held in an interrogation room at Evin Prison, the most notorious jail in Tehran, and tortured around the clock. His interrogators wanted him to tell them where they could find his uncle .
Hezarkhani was suspended from a wall, with his elbows drawn up behind his back. He was beaten everywhere, but the worst of it was the soles of his feet, which were beaten with electrical cables of various sizes – because the victim’s feet eventually become accustomed to one size and changing sizes makes it hurt all over again .
"Your feet,” he says, “they are so sensitive. The pain, it’s unbearable.” He had been trained to endure torture. “After three days, it was too much. I couldn’t take any more. I was tired. I decided I would talk" .
Hezarkhani’s torturers, however, tired before he did. By the most narrow margin, he had won the race. Had he talked, he would certainly have been executed. “I’m not a hero,” he says. “I’m just lucky they got tired" .
He was taken to the narrow and crowded cell called “the Mosque,” which got its name during the reign of the Shah, when it was used as a mosque .
Most of the prisoners – Hezarkhani estimates 90 per cent – were Mujahedeen who had fought the Shah and were now opposed to the ayatollahs. “They’re called a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Canada,” Hezarkhani points out, “but they call Iran a terrorist regime. How can those who fight against the terrorists be called terrorists" ?
Every Wednesday evening, there were executions. Prisoners were called out by name, from Hezarkhani’s cell and others like it, and told to bring their effects. They would hear a volley of shots from the firing squad, then single shots as each executed prisoner was finished off. Inside the cell, the remaining prisoners would determine the number of dead by counting the shots .
"It was always more than 100 at a time,” he says. “Sometimes there were two groups on Wednesdays, 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sometimes three. But always there were executions at 8 p.m., every Wednesday" .
Hezarkhani is not a sports fan but every four years, he watches the World Cup, in honour of a friend of his, who was trying to follow the 1982 World Cup in Spain from his prison cell in Iran. “He loved soccer,” Hezarkhani recalls. “He told me, ‘All I want is to live to see who wins the World Cup.’ But they took him out and they shot him" .
Hezarkhani himself expected to be shot. He had been told as much by his interrogators. But when they called his name after 14 months, he discovered he was being released when they took his fingerprints, before he was loaded onto a bus and dropped off in the middle of a busy highway. His family and supporters, he learned later, had raised enough money to buy his freedom .
From Tehran, he made his way to Turkey, where he was granted refugee status. But Turkish authorities told him he was not safe in Turkey and with the involvement of the United Nations, he was eventually granted landed immigrant status in Canada in November 1987 .
Even his arrival in Canada was a frightening experience for a man who endured what he had been through. The apartment where he was settled was next to a mosque, where he could hear the call to prayers morning and night. It was a call he associated with prison, because in Tehran, he had always lived in a Christian neighbourhood .
All that is in the past. Now Hezarkhani’s focus is to educate people on what he considers an extremely dangerous regime. “They are like Hitler,” he says, “except that with Hitler, it was based on race. In Iran, they want to use religion to extend their power".

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