03/01/2013 05:54 pm ET Updated May 01, 2013

Punishment for Non-crimes in Iran

"A bad wound heals but a bad word doesn't" is the Persian proverb that comes to mind after viewing the comprehensive documentary: Forced Confessions: Non-crime and Punishment in Iran. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held the first American screening of this documentary on how torture was and is used to extract confessions. Forced Confessions documents six Iranian victims of torture through interviews and narrated by Maziar Bahari, who was also abused in prison for covering Iran's 2009 elections. Torture is carried out against non-political prisoners as well; I do not mean to imply that it is somehow acceptable to torture political prisoners. Although it is a difficult subject, I am glad that Forced Confessions is a film by Iranians and Iranian expatriates, or it would be seen as having another layer of criticism if it had been documented by a non-Iranian. I listened to all six narratives shared in Farsi and read the subtitles in English; it was like getting the truth twice because the earlier forced confession was so blatantly untrue.

Through letters and interviews, the physical wounds inflicted by the government sanctioned torture are recounted. Even more tragically, one of the six committed suicide. Siamak Pourzand, Ali Asfari, Ramin Jahanbegloo, and Omid Memarian are among the six journalists, writers, and scholars explain how the psychological wounds of forced confessions must be documented for the public record because as one of the torture survivors shared, "I thought the letter I wrote to my wife would disgrace me, but it disgraced the regime" in reflecting how torture to force false confessions does not even serve those in power in the long-term.

The significance of this documentary film certainly shows how "bad words" do not heal as easily. According to Bahari, Forced Confessions is so popular on Iran's black market, that it is "selling better than (the bootleg copy) of the Batman movie and porn."

Role Reversal in the Cycle of Torture

Two themes from the documentary struck me. The first is that of role-reversal. There is a cycle of torture where most Iranians know that confessions are forced. So there is little to know discussion regarding its validity in Iranian newspapers. Some of the most ardent supporters of the forced confessions tactics come from those who were tortured during the Iranian Shah's time. The Iran newspaper, Kayhan (The Universe), is an example.

The second theme that struck me was the immediate distinction of who was "political" and who was not -- as if somehow asking for peaceful reforms, as Ramin Jahanbegloo had done, becomes exaggerated, conflated, and warranting physical torture. Those who serve as watchdogs become politicized. Politicizing an individual is often an authoritarian regime tactic to delegitimize a voice asking a question. So who watches out for the watchdogs when they do?

Who Watches Out for the Watchdog?

Reporters Without Borders just announced that its Netizen Prize for 2013 includes one of Iran's jailed bloggers on human rights, Shiva Nazar Ahari. I hope that Ahari wins -- not because she is a woman for being arrested numerous times for calling attention to human rights abuses. The other seven nominees are deserving for the same reasons. But I hope Ahari wins because awarding her answers my big question: Who looks out for the watchdog when everyone is fixated on films like Argo?

Since Sept. 23, another blogger has been sitting in jail without a trial for sharing his own opinion, without any affiliation, on his blog Pouyesh. Blogger Sattar Beheshti died in prison a few days after his arrest in October.

It is a tragic irony for the blogger for two reasons 1) he or she expresses opinions, or asks the question about corruption that many may think, but will not vocalize; and 2) many citizen bloggers are without any affiliation, so the false accusation of group support falls flat, because the non-existent affiliation cannot even stand up for the blogger...because it doesn't exist. Golnaz Esfandiari maintains an informative blog called Persian Letters, which diligently covers Iranian society... but it is not based in Iran.

Ahari's supporters, including myself, assert that Ahari is "only a human rights activist and was never involved with politics." The problem is, or rather, the challenge, is that advocating for human rights is a political topic because it challenges the abuses by government, such as the forced confessions during imprisonment. So what if human rights enters the political domain -- there should be no need to apologize for advocating that human beings are not treated like animals. There is no need to "submit" to labels and rhetoric used by a regime that is unjust to begin with -- if one is considered being "political" for defending human rights, fine, it is a citizen's right to question neglect, abuse, corruption, and voting rights. The regime does not own the right to dismiss the opposition as "oh, so and so is political"... so what? The regime is political too -- what is wrong with looking at the mirror that its people have held up for further reflection. If the mirror takes the form of a documentary film, or a blogger, then it is because they want to hold the mirror up higher to meet their expectations for what they may have for their country too.

Earlier on Nov. 21, BBC Persian aired the film. So of course, at an American screening of the film, the question comes up from another American audience member: Are there any efforts to screen it clandestinely in Iran? (Note the irony of this question since clandestine efforts have had a great track record when it comes to Iran.) The more forward-thinking question came from an Iranian American who asked how Iranian human rights advocacy groups could raise a louder voice and become more politically engaged rather than just tracking human rights abuses.