BEIRUT — A prisoner forced to confess tries to speak with his eyes – to tell those watching that he's admitting to crimes he never committed because he's been broken by days alone in a cell and interrogators' threats to his family and loved ones.
And because it's the only way to get free, said Ebrahim Nabavi, a popular Iranian satirist whose televised confession came after he spent more than three months in prison in 2000 for his written jabs at the ruling clerics.
Nabavi believes he saw the same thing happen as he watched two of Iran's most prominent pro-reform politicians make televised confessions last week during the country's biggest political trial in years.
The confessions by former vice president Mohammad Abtahi and Mohammad Atrianfar were a dramatic centerpiece of the trial of some 100 opposition figures arrested in the crackdown following the disputed June 12 presidential election.
Long an outspoken proponent of reform and a government critic, Abtahi completely reversed himself in the courtroom. He said the opposition movement made up claims the election was fraudulent and planned even before the vote to launch a wave of unrest to topple the government in a "velvet revolution."
Human rights activists believe the same interrogation techniques Nabavi and others were subjected to are being used to extract confessions from the current group of detainees. But no one knows for sure because Abtahi and the others were held for weeks in secret prisons with no access to lawyers or family, and they have not been able to speak freely.
"Extracting confessions means the script has been written beforehand. They make the prisoner suffer so much until that person says what is in the script," said Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a prominent women's rights activist who was jailed and interrogated twice in 2004 and 2007.
"For example, they write up the script that there was no cheating in the election and the reformists have launched a velvet revolution ... So now they bring out Abtahi to make him say (that)," she said.
Abtahi's wife says she's certain her husband was coerced and that he seemed to have been drugged when she was finally allowed to see him several days before the trial began on Aug. 1. Abtahi appeared dramatically thinner and disheveled in the court's first session. The next session is on Saturday.
Released detainees have described being crowded into cells, beaten by guards and even forced to lick toilet bowls. But the exact treatment of those who gave confessions remains unknown.
Nabavi said the trauma of his own ordeal came back to him as he watched Abtahi on TV.
"When you sit on that chair (in court) ... you feel you are all alone and only you can decide your fate, and the only thing you can do is destroy yourself" by confessing, he said.
Nabavi, who now lives in exile in Brussels, said he was "shattered" by the pressure put on him to confess. It wasn't physical – his interrogators never touched him, he said. Instead, it was psychological and the most devastating aspect was solitary confinement.
For a month and a half, Nabavi was held in isolation in a 6-foot-by-3-foot cell in Tehran's Evin prison. His jailers did not come to see him for three days after he was arrested, he said, leaving him to fearfully stew over what might happen.
"Do you know what loneliness means?" Nabavi asked. "After one hour (in solitary confinement) you suddenly feel separated from the rest of the world. There's nothing else. Everyone has abandoned you."
"But at the same time you hear the sounds of life from a distance. You hear cars passing, the murmur of people. You know there are people out there who are living, speaking to each other, walking. But you can only walk the distance of two yards."
"Gradually, you feel feeble, oppressed and wronged. You feel that you have lost your right to live. Then slowly you blame yourself for bringing it upon yourself and start going over the things you did and look for the mistakes you made."
"'Why on Earth did I do this? Why did I put my life in danger and sacrifice myself for the sake of stupid and ignorant people?' And so you start humiliating yourself. You keep belittling yourself."
Nabavi said when the interrogations finally began it was a relief to end the isolation.
"At least you get to talk to someone," he said. "Your interrogator becomes the closest person to you because you have no one else in this world."
Now 51, Nabavi was known in the 1990s for his daily satirical column in which he openly ridiculed senior clerics and hard-liners. After his confession, he was tried and convicted of insulting the Islamic regime, then released on bail. He left the country in 2003 and continues to criticize Iranian authorities in satires that appear on opposition Iranian Web sites and on his blog.
Akbar Ganji, who spent six years imprisoned in Evin for his investigative journalism, also went through isolation and says it is one of the most powerful tools for breaking a prisoner.
"Solitary confinement is worse than death... After the passing of some time, apathy takes over. That's when (the prisoner) is ready ... to confess to what they want him to so that he can get out of that situation," he said.
Ganji, who was arrested in 2000, refused to sign a confession. He was put on trial and sentenced. After his release in 2006 he went into exile, mainly in the United States.
"Each person's experience is different," he said. "What is important is that those who give up shouldn't be regarded negatively and should be defended as heroes, and the criminal regimes that employ such methods should be condemned."
Once a prisoner has been softened up by isolation, interrogators use personal issues as leverage to force cooperation, such as threats to harm family members or imprison children, Nabavi said.
They will even ferret out secrets like an extramarital affair to use against a detainee, then press for details – when and how they met, when and where they had sex. If a detainee refuses to answer, they threaten to haul the lover into prison, Nabavi said.
"You end up sacrificing your political integrity in order to safeguard your privacy," he said.
When Nabavi was arrested, he refused to divulge his home address. Then the authorities threatened to go to the home of his frail mother, who had a heart ailment. "I immediately said 'I'm at your service, I will do whatever you want.' I knew they have no conscience and couldn't care for her life. This is how they pressure you."
Such threats against family members are common, said Abbasgholizadeh.
During three weeks in Evin in 2007, intelligence agents demanded a rundown of her finances to concoct evidence she was getting money from foreign agents. They brought in her son-in-law, who had briefly helped with her bookkeeping – a move she called devastating. She was later released on bail.
Nabavi said he believes he knows what Abtahi was thinking when he confessed.
A person on trial tries to show with his eyes that "he's saying these things because he wants to be free, because he's under pressure. He's saying, 'You all know me, how I was before, you have to give me the chance when I come out to tell you what happened in there,'" Nabavi said.
"He's thinking, 'I have to say it in such a way that intelligent people would understand that I have not sold myself, that I am not a coward; that they have put pressure on me, that they have shattered me."