The Murderous Mullahs
May 22, 2004
Few Western reporters are allowed to visit Iran. In this powerful
dispatch Ann Leslie paints a horrifying picture of a violent and corrupt
dictatorship run by fundamentalist Muslim fundamentalists.
We in the West are rightly outraged about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners
in the Abu Graib jail. We publicise it. We print the evidence, as the
Mail does today. We interview the victims. But how many newspapers in
the Muslim world, living as they do under a variety of dictatorships,
would dare to publicise the appalling torture that routinely occurs in
their own jails? None.
Otherwise they'll suffer the same fate as so many I've spoken to on a
visit to the allegedly democratic Islamic Republic of Iran.
Take the young man I met who's been imprisoned and tortured merely for
speaking out against the mullahs' Islamist regime. He will doubtless
suffer more of the same for speaking to me, a Western 'infidel'. Yet he
agreed to meet me secretly in a small wood in the centre of a city park.
He seemed - like every other tortured dissident I met in this bizarre
country - extraordinarily fearless about our forthcoming meeting; I, on
the other hand, was not. However, I'd so far managed to give my official
'minder' the slip, pleading that I was unwell and wouldn't be leaving my
hotel that day.
In fact, I'd already changed hotels since arriving in the cacophonous,
heavily-polluted Iranian capital Tehran. I'd been booked into a
regime-controlled hotel called the Laleh, which means 'tulip' in
Persian. The red tulip is the official symbol of martyrdom here, and
this hotel was, I learned, bugged throughout.
The tulips of martyrdom are an obsession here: but the only 'martyrs'
who are honoured in this relentless Islamist cult of death are, of
course, those who've been 'martyred' on behalf of Iran's despotic (and
hopelessly incompetent) clerical regime.
It's a nation controlled by Sharia law and one which many radical
Muslims in the West - like the hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza - dearly
wish to emulate.
As I tried to spot who, among the strollers in the Tehran park, was one
of the ubiquitous secret policemen or Islamic vigilantes, I thought
angrily that fanatically deluded young British Muslims should actually
try living in a fundamentalist Islamist state - where stoning to death
is still the official punishment for adultery (size of stones specified
in the Penal Code) , and where 'ridiculing or insulting the government'
is, in itself, deemed worthy of imprisonment and solitary confinement.
And where converting from Islam to any other religion is 'apostasy' -
and therefore must be punished by death. 'The Prophet Mohammed said that
there should be " no compulsion in religion"', I pointed out
to a black-turbaned mullah in the holy city of Qom, 'yet you forbid a
Muslim to convert!'.
The bearded 35 year old mullah snapped at me: 'You are mistaken. There
is no compulsion in religion in Iran'. Try telling that, dear Mullah
Sayeed Mir Mohammed, to the family of the young man who was hanged in
public for converting to the original Iranian religion of
Zoroastrianism. The hanged man will not, of course, be classified as a
The outside walls of office buildings everywhere in Iran are plastered
with elaborate murals portraying officially-sanctioned 'martyrs',
including one which I, as a mother, found particularly disturbing every
time I passed it. It features the idealised portrait of a young teenage
boy who was 'martyred' during the bloody eight-year-long war between
Iran and Iraq. Gazing approvingly down on the image of the dead
teenager, the ever-present portrait of the cruel, crafty features of the
founder of Iran's 25 year old Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.
He was not only the man who sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for
writing a 'blasphemous' book (which the sainted cleric hadn't even
read), but who sent human waves of young boys, some as young as twelve,
to clear minefields by using their own bodies.
On the way to my meeting with the dissident in the wood I reflected on
the fact that radical Islamist clerics always urge other parents'
children to undertake 'martyrdom missions', but somehow never get round
to urging their own offspring to do the same. In Tehran, the sons and
daughters of many of the ruling clerics live in luxury in the city's
leafy northern suburbs in former regime houses requisitioned by the
Islamic state. None of this 'martyrdom' nonsense for them, then.
Doubtless. were I to achieve the dubious 'honour' of martyrdom the cause
of a free press, my grave would be unmarked, as are thousands in the two
secret cemeteries, themselves unmarked, which I visited where the
victims of the mullahs' mass-murder campaigns lie buried.
In one secret burial area on the outskirts of the city near a vast
scrapyard, I noticed that several of the graves had been decorated with
coloured shells and fresh flowers.
'If the families know where their loved ones are buried - and most do
not - they come here secretly at night to place the flowers. My uncle's
body lies there - he was only eighteen when they killed him', I was told
by the murdered man's nephew. 'Often we find that even these small
decorations have been vandalised by people like the "Helpers of
God" vigilantes, who are paid by the leading mullahs'.
So here I was on a hot, sunny day in this Tehran city park, waiting to
meet a 'counter-revolutionary' , and I'm feeling not only slightly
nervous, but also somewhat puzzled. I've worked undercover in
dictatorships before, and I've been aware in all those countries of a
pervasive miasma of fear -but that miasma seems to be astonishingly
All the Iranians I've met have been extraordinarily welcoming, affable,
keen to practise their English and to tell me about their favourite
bootleg Hollywood movies and officially banned Western pop music- 'Oh, I
LOVE Jennifer Lopez!' Satellite dishes are illegal - but most people I
met seemed to have access to one.
Even in the holy desert city of Qom, which contains around 40,000
mullahs and seminarians, I was told that, if I want some alcohol (the
penalty for possession is being lashed), 'you just have to go to that
Several people I met told me raucous (and sometimes filthy) anti-mullah
jokes. And all told me, in varying forms, that 'we Iranian Muslims are
forced to live under a PERVERSION of Islam!'
Despite this wave of welcoming affability, I had to remind myself that
this is a grotesque - and stupidly cruel - police state, which is
allegedly run in the name of Allah by a gang of corrupt and murderous
This is a state where, at the Friday prayers broadcast live on
state-controlled television (which I attended in a curtained-off and
segregated women-only section), the preacher, a leading Ayatollah, with
a semi-automatic rifle by his side, denounced the West for its moral
corruption. And where pre-positioned cheer-leaders urged the worshippers
to chant 'Death to Israel!', 'Death to America!'.
The Ayatollah concerned, incidentally, is one of the most corrupt
figures in the 'mullahcratic mafia'; it was he who airily justified the
mass murder of jailed regime opponents in 1988 (some of whose secret
graves I've visited) by joking: 'Well, we don't have enough chickens to
feed them all!'.
This is a state which finances - and has itself indulged in - terrorism
overseas. This is a state which is suspected of attempting to acquire
nuclear weapons, and which has at times given shelter to al-Qaeda
militants, including to the man who had himself video-ed cutting off the
head of the young American Nick Berg.
A state whose official policy is the total destruction of Israel, and
who persecutes any one who speaks out in favour of rapprochement with
the 'Great Satan' America.
A state which has handed down eight and nine year prison sentences to
two pollsters merely for conducting polls which proved that, among other
unpalatable things, around three quarters of Iranians actually want a
rapprochement with America, whose 'satanic' culture they not-so-secretly
A state which has sentenced an academic to death for 'apostasy' merely
for writing an article questioning whether Iranians should blindly
follow, 'like donkeys', the diktats of the ruling clerics .
A state which pretends it is an 'Islamic democracy' but whose unelected
Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the equally unelected
12-member Guardian Council, can not only overrule laws passed by the
Parliament but, preceding the parliamentary elections held in February,
was able arbitrarily to disqualify over 2,000 prospective reformist
candidates on the grounds that they were all insufficiently 'Islamic'.
But this is also a state of 68 million people, 70% of whom are under 30,
which sits on some of the largest oil reserves in the world and which
is, as one diplomat put it to me, 'the proverbial elephant in the living
room. We all know it's there, but we try not to think about it'.
So why do we know so little about this vast and now, I believe,
dangerously volatile country? For the simple reason that the mullahs
don't want us to. A Canadian woman journalist who was doing what I'm
doing in this park - trying to discover the grisly truth about this
regime - was arrested and tortured to death last year in Tehran's
notorious Evin prison.
As I climbed up a small hill to meet the young dissident I almost
fainted from the heat induced by my mandated Islamic Dress Code of black
hejab headscarf, black socks and a long shapeless black coat. Oddly
enough, I had some difficulty in buying this suffocating, impractical
Every shop I went into featured 'manteaus,' the black, baggy,
figure-concealing ankle-length coats which are supposed to prevent a
woman - even one of my age - from inciting the supposedly uncontrollable
lust of good Muslim men. Except that the manteaus on sale were not
baggy, and not black: indeed, some were remarkably short, colourful and
A man in a shop who spoke English explained to the woman shop assistant
that 'this lady wants to buy proper Islamic clothes'. The assistant,
whose hejab was perched on the back of her head, showing off her
well-coiffed hair (an 'un-Islamic' act, according to the regime)
retorted: 'Oh, b***** Islam!' I expected the others in the shop to
denounce her and summon one of the religious 'enforcer' groups. Instead
of which they all - male and female - burst out laughing. The
English-speaker explained: 'everyone here takes the p*** out of the
mullahs: we despise them all'.
Even when I smuggled myself into a hospital to visit one of Iran's most
famous dissidents, the 74 year old journalist Siamak Pourzand - who'd
been brought to the ward in iron shackles from Evin prison where he's
serving an 11 year sentence - I did not get the feeling that the staff
wished to betray me to the authorities.
They clearly respected the proud but broken Pourzand who has been
tortured and who is possibly dying. But even in his dire condition,
Pourzand insisted on denouncing the regime to me.
This fundamentalist Islamic government is, despite its ferocity,
beginning to lose control over its own people, not least because the
cleric-run economy is in ruins. One day a bankrupt businessman, working
as an unofficial taxi-driver, gave me a lift. On hearing that 'I'm an
English convert to Islam' who's going out to the desert city of Qom next
day, he exclaimed: 'Please, dear sister, if you go to the Holy Shrine
tomorrow, pray to the saints that they rid us of the mullahs soon - as
quickly as possible! They just use Islam to oppress us, to keep power
and get rich - while we all suffer!'
On finally meeting up with the young man in the wood I assured him that
I will disguise his identity. After all, he was first arrested four
years ago as a teenage schoolboy for his anti-regime activities and has
been repeatedly tortured.
'When it first happened to me I was only seventeen and I was so shocked,
I really wanted to die. But now I'm inoculated, so I don't care any
more'. So inoculated (a word I was to hear constantly) has twenty-one
year old Kianoush Sanjari become that, with the reckless courage of so
many young Iranians I met, he simply refuses to keep his mouth shut. For
the 'crime' of criticising the mullahs on an international radio
station, he was once again arrested and sentenced to five years in
prison, reduced on appeal to one year.
And yet, by talking to me - and by insisting I use his name (as all
those I interviewed did) - he was risking prison yet again. 'Yes, but
international pressure on behalf of political prisoners and dissidents
is the only thing that keeps us alive. The mullahs can't kill or torture
us all - there are too many of us now. The regime doesn't speak for the
Iranian people - we do! Our age group is in the majority!'
Was George Bush right to denounce Iran as part of 'the axis of evil'?
'Yes. In fact we're very much hoping for President Bush's re-election.
Not because we want America to invade Iran - we certainly don't - but
because we need support against this regime'.
Again, secretly, late at night, having slipped my hapless minder's
clutches, I talked to another young dissident, Ali Afshari, a leader of
the student movement. He too has been jailed, tortured and forced to
make a televised 'confession'. 'The beatings and solitary confinement
were not the worst thing - it was my guilty conscience for making that
false confession. They completely broke down my personality and then
repeatedly rehearsed me in what I had to say. It was the bitterest
moment of my life. When I was released I held a press conference
denouncing that forced confession, because I would never be able to look
in the mirror again if I still had that burden on my soul'.
It is obvious to any outsider that it's only a matter of time before
this Islamic regime implodes. Violently? Afshari shrugged: 'I'm afraid
it will probably end in violence. The reform movement has reached a dead
end and now there is so much frustration that it only needs the
slightest spark for the whole thing to explode'.
Another secret, late-night meeting, this time with lawyer Dr. Qassem
Sholeh Sa'adi, who has not only been arrested for writing an open letter
attacking the Supreme Leader, but has also (he tells me) survived
several assassination attempts.
'The apple is ripe and ready to fall - and, if the Americans and the
British don't help us to shake the tree, I can assure you that they
won't get any slice of the economic action after the regime falls!'.
We have been duly warned.