Coercive debating in an Iranian Jail

Maziar Bahari – 118 days in Evin Prison
Maziar Bahari  had left London in 2009 to cover Iran’s presidential election, promising his fiancée Paola that he’d be back in just a few days.  The Iranians arrested him and those few days stretched into three months of violent interrogation in Evin Prison, Iran.
The interrogator, who Maziar called “Rosewater” due to his perfume, explained that Maziar was an agent of foreign intelligence organizations – the CIA, M16, Mossad, and Newsweek.  Maziar thought Rosewater was joking about Newsweek, but he was serious, he believed that Newsweek was a part of the American intelligence apparatus.  Plus, Maziar was supposedly the mastermind of the Western media in Iran.  The editors of most of the American media, Rosewater explained, were assigned by the CIA.
As various more accusations came, Maziar tried to answer them, but got nowhere.  He writes
 In high school, one of my favorite subjects had been logic.  I’d always thought I could follow people’s reasoning…But I had no idea what Rosewater was talking about….All I could do was follow out a logical sequence of my own:
These people are in charge of my life.
They are ideological, ignorant, and stupid.
I am screwed.
There were very weird moments.  Rosewater brought up the topic of the state of New Jersey, and said
All I know is that it is a godless place, like the one you were trying to create in this country.  With naked women and Michael Jackson music!….You were planning to eradicate the pure religion of Mohammad in this country and replace it with ‘American’ Islam.  A New Jersey Islam.
Rosewater backed up his arguments with violence.  This included punching Maziar in the head or slapping him on the legs with a belt, or punching him in the shoulders.
One instance of this was interesting, First Rosewater reminded Maziar of a martyr of the revolution who had said “Tell America to be angry with us and die of that anger!”
Maziar had known that martyr’s family, and also knew that the martyr’s son had been arrested by the current Iranian government.  So he pointed out the irony “I find it ironic that you quote a statement form the heyday of the revolution while you have arrested the son of the man who said it.”
This was a mistake.
Rosewater ‘grasped my left ear and his hand and started to squeeze it as if he were wringing out a lemon.  As the cartilage tore, I could feel the pain, like a slow fever…
Rosewater and his bosses offered a deal to Maziar, he just had to incriminate the reformist politicians he had interviewed as being part of an American plot.
In reality, Maziar was what he presented himself to be – a journalist.  He says that though it is likely that M16 and the CIA did what they could to help dissidents in Iran, it was absurd to blame millions of people’s disenchantment with their government on foreign intelligence agencies.  He also says that in Iran the journalists are often at the service of the government, and a free press was an alien concept.  So the interrogators assumed the same thing was true of the Western press.
Rosewater believed he was doing something good by putting Maziar through all of this.  He said to him:
The whole country is in a turmoil because of you, How can you answer all of the mothers who’ve lost their children because of you?  How can you answer for all the blood you’ve shed since the election?
If we were to compare debate vs interrogation, there was a big difference.  Even though in a normal debate, both debaters may have a predetermined conclusion that they won’t give up, there isn’t the omnipresent threat of violence when one debater says the wrong thing.  In prison, however, you can always win an argument if you can inflict pain when the opposing debater – your prisoner – says something you don’t like.
There is another interrogation that I’ll mention here, it was of a man named Menachem who was sentenced to eight years in a concentration camp in Stalin’s Russia for being a dangerous element in society.  He was a Zionist, and before he was shipped up north, in endless nights of interrogation he debated, with his interrogator, the Russian Revolution, Zionism, the Russian commune and the Jewish kibbutz, Capitalism and Communism, the Spanish Civil War and the French Popular Front.  There was no violence in this interrogation.
Menachem says:
My interrogator was young, tall and handsome, and almost polite in his manner.  He no more doubted my “guilt” than I that his accusations were nonsense.
His basic assumptions was astounding nonsense, but the dialectic super-structure he built up on this foundation was nearly perfect.  During those long nights…[he] told me:
“Zionism in all its forms is a farce and a deception, a puppet show.  Its not true that you aim to set up a Jewish State in Palestine, or that you  intend to being millions of Jews there.  Both these aims are utterly impractical….This talk of a ‘State’ conceals the true purpose of Zionism–which is to divert the Jewish youth from the ranks of the revolution in Europe and put them at the disposal of British imperialism in the Middle East.”
Like Maziar with his statement about irony, which provoked Rosewater, Menachem got his interrogator angry when he pointed out a contradiction – he said that Paragraph 129 of Stalin’s Constitution lays down clearly that the Soviet Union will give refuge to citizens of foreign States persecuted for fighting for national liberation.  So, added Menachem naively, “You have no right to keep me in gaol.”
At these words, the Russian’s face went alternately red and white.  No longer the polite officer, he clenched his fist and raised his voice:  “Stop this nonsense, you stupid lawyer!  You dare quote the Stalin Constitution?
The Russian went on to explain that the quote was out of context, but Menachem tells us it was certainly not out of context.
Menachem says that being in isolation can break revolutionaries.  This isolation is not only physical, but also mental and political, since there is nobody out there who will even be aware of your stand, who your words will reach.
Maziar too talks of psychological methods being more effective than pain in getting prisoners to give up.
The story ended well for both Menachem and Maziar
Menachem Begin

Menachem Begin, being a Polish citizen, was released when Sikorski signed his pact with Stalin.  Menachem made his way to Palestine, became the leader of the Irgun, which rose up against the British.  Eventually, he became Prime Minister of Israel.

Maziar returned to England, and later found out the real identity of “Rosewater”.  He leaves us with a final thought about his interrogator:
The man who woke me up on that morning in June 2009 and put me through a nightmare for 118 days lives a nightmare every day.  He is the one who spends his time in Evin, in a small dark room, beating and humiliating innocent people.  He is just another employee of a bad system, a by-product of ignorance and religious zealotry.
One of these days, Maziar jokes, he will send Rosewater a plane ticket to New Jersey.


Then They Came For Me – Maziar Bahari with Aimee Molloy (2011)
The Revolt – Menachem Begin – (1951, 1977)


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