PARIS -- Houshang Asadi was a Communist journalist thrown into the cold confines of Moshtarek prison in Iran when he found an unlikely friend in the tall, slender Muslim cleric who greeted him with a smile.
Imprisoned together in 1974, under the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, they found common ground in their passion for literature. They shared jokes, spoke of where they came from, their families and falling in love. Mr. Asadi, who did not smoke, would give cigarettes to his cellmate who, uncharacteristic of a cleric, did. On days when Mr. Asadi felt broken, he said, the cleric would invite him to take a walk in their cell to brighten his spirits.
So, when his release came six months later and the cleric stood cold and trembling, Mr. Asadi gave him his jacket. "At first he refused it, but I told him I was going to be released," Mr. Asadi recalled. "Then we hugged each other and he had tears coming down his face. He whispered in my ear, 'Houshang, when Islam comes to power, not a single tear will be shed from an innocent person."'
What Mr. Asadi found unimaginable was that the cleric would become president of the Islamic Republic that later imprisoned him again, sentenced him to death and brutally tortured him for six years in the same prison. Today that same cleric is the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Asadi's account of torture and imprisonment has offered a rare glimpse into what activists say was a decade of grave human rights violations in Iran. And at a time when international attention has shifted to the nuclear issue and sanctions, they say a campaign to bring justice and accountability through a symbolic tribunal has helped unite a once fractured opposition.
"I never expected he would get power, never," said Mr. Asadi in an interview in Paris, where he lives in exile.
Mr. Asadi, a 63-year-old writer, journalist and former member of the Tudeh party, was routinely arrested and tortured under the shah. He had supported the revolution, so when he was arrested again in 1982 and accused of being a spy for the Russians and the British, he was convinced that it was a mistake.
In a plea for help, his wife wrote to Mr. Khamenei, who had risen to power as president after the Islamic revolution, but two weeks later the letter was returned with a note in the margin saying only that he had been aware of the journalist's political beliefs. Mr. Asadi's death sentence was reduced to 15 years in prison. During his time in prison, he again developed a relationship with the only person he had contact with -- as he had done with Mr. Khamenei. This time it was with his torturer, a man he knew only as "Brother Hamid."
"He is your torturer and he thinks he is your god, he thinks he is religious, he is pure, and you are evil, you are the enemy," Mr. Asadi said. "So he can do anything to you."
Mr. Asadi said he was called a "useless wimp" and hung by a chain attached to his arms twisted behind his back while the soles of his feet were whipped until he was unable to walk.
Brother Hamid forced him to bark like a dog to speak or when the pain was too much and he was ready to make confessions. His ears were hit and his teeth were broken. Mr. Asadi said he had even been forced to eat his own excrement and the excrement of fellow prisoners.
Beyond physical pain, he endured psychological torture. He was shown coffins and told his comrades had been killed. He would hear screams and was made to believe his wife was being tortured in the cell next to him.
Allowed sporadic visits of only 15 minutes, his wife said his torment was evident. "I didn't recognize him," Nooshabeh Amiri, Mr. Asadi's wife, said of her first visit, six months after his arrest. "He was fat, he was dirty, he had a long beard. But especially in his eyes, they were not the same. You could see that nothing passed through; it was just fear and being helpless."
Ms. Amiri, who was initially arrested with Mr. Asadi and released the same day, said her husband's imprisonment had also changed her. "The person who was inside of me before was a happy person. I loved life. But suddenly, I became older. It is not just the prisoners who are being disturbed. Families suffer, too."
The torture continued daily for six years, until he was abruptly pulled out of his cell in 1988 when the supreme leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the mass killing of thousands of political prisoners. Prisoners were asked three questions concerning their religious faith and loyalty to the regime. "If you answered no to any question, they killed you," Mr. Asadi said. "I lied to save my life."
In 2009, he published his memoir, "Letters to My Torturer," detailing the relationship that grew between him and Brother Hamid. He hopes to find an American film company to bring his story to a wider audience.
"It's hard for me to talk about even today," said Mr. Asadi, who had a heart attack while writing the book, provoked by the stress of recalling his imprisonment. "But this is something that the world needs to know about."
Iranian exiles contend that from 1980 to 1988, 20,000 to 30,000 Iranians were executed in prison and thousands more were tortured. In the summer of 1988, under a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, at least 5,000 political prisoners were executed, according to Amnesty International.
The events have been largely ignored by the international community, and accounts from survivors like Mr. Asadi have served as the only form of record. But now a grass-roots campaign has begun to investigate and expose the events in Iranian prisons. The Iran Tribunal, an independent tribunal set up in 2007 by survivors and families of victims, has ruled that the Islamic Republic committed crimes against humanity and gross violations of human rights during the 1980s.
The ruling, which has no legal standing and is symbolic in nature came after a three-day hearing in The Hague and was based on testimonies and evidence gathered by a truth commission in July in London, where 75 witnesses, including survivors and families of victims, testified to widespread patterns of brutality and disregard for basic human rights as well as extrajudicial executions throughout the country.
Because the crimes have gone unpunished, members of the tribunal say a culture of impunity endures in Iran.
"Not only have those who have violated human rights not been punished, but they have been promoted to cabinet posts, jobs in the judiciary, very high-ranking positions, and even to the Supreme Court," said Kaveh Shahrooz, a human rights lawyer in Toronto and a member of the steering committee.
The Iran Tribunal wants the United Nations to investigate the events. So far, no official legal body has investigated the crimes and no major rights group has written a full report on the events.
Yet finding a mechanism to investigate and render justice has proven challenging. The International Criminal Court, or I.C.C., the permanent U.N. tribunal, has jurisdiction regarding crimes against humanity committed only after July 1, 2002, and only if the accused is a national of a state accepting the jurisdiction of the court. Iran does not.
"The modern international justice system -- with further ad hoc tribunals created for Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Lebanon, culminating in the establishment of the I.C.C. -- has all been developed since 1993," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "But crimes committed in the 1980s do not fall within the I.C.C. jurisdiction, so could not be used for crimes committed in the 1980s."
Others note that the U.N. Security Council has the power to set up an ad hoc tribunal. But to make such a tribunal possible, all members of the council would have to agree to it, including Russia and China, allies of Iran that many believe would block such call.
"Part of this has been the international community, particularly the U.N. mechanisms, not wanting to look deeply into these issues because of the situation on the ground," said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "Getting inside Iran has been extremely difficult and the government has categorically denied that any of the atrocities have happened."
Iran has denied entry to Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, and criticized his reports, which claim widespread systematic abuse, calling him irrelevant.
Others say that while the regime went to great lengths to conceal the events, years of war distracted the world from what was happening.
"This massacre came at the end of the Iran-Iraq war," said Hamid Sabi, an Iranian human rights lawyer in Britain and a member of the steering committee. "The media had focused on Iran for too long and they were just not interested. Iran became too much after 1988."
As the possibility of war with Iran once again pervades the news media, members of the Iran Tribunal said it was even more critical that Iranians come together to address past abuses.
"There is the notion that Iran is being viewed exclusively through the prism of the nuclear issue, and human rights matters are the last thing on the minds of policy makers," said Payam Akhavan, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, who served as the legal adviser to the prosecutor at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. "It's once again for the Iranian people to make human rights the central issue for the future of Iran."
But bringing together those affected has not been easy. Victims were leftists, students, and ethnic and religious minorities who have struggled to set aside differences to join forces. The tribunal was not immune to these challenges.
Critics from the far left accuse the Iran Tribunal of fueling tensions about war. Others, including Mr. Asadi, denounced the tribunal in the belief that it was supported by the Mujahedeen Khalq, a group just recently removed from the U.S. State Department's list of designated terrorist organizations, a move criticized by many in the Iranian opposition. Because a large number of the prisoners killed were supporters of the Mujahedeen Khalq, witnesses included former members. The tribunal denied the allegations.
Mr. Sabi, the rights lawyer in Britain, said, "This tribunal brought people together as individuals, not as members of any group."
Despite challenges, many agree that the Iranian opposition has set aside differences in recent years to unite in the fight against abuse.
"I have never seen the Iranian human rights community more at one, more integrated and coordinated across the board than it is now, and this tribunal taps into that," said Drewery Dyke, an Iran researcher for Amnesty International.
Mr. Ghaemi, executive director of the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said: "You see people setting aside their differences for the sake of bringing justice for these atrocities. This is a critical moment."
Others say the newfound unity is indicative of larger democratic forces in Iran that remain alive. "This comes just three years after the unprecedented historical uprising in Iran, the Green Movement, the predecessor of the Arab Spring," said Mr. Akhavan, the tribunal's chief prosecutor. "It's part of a larger movement of Iranians who are demanding justice, accountability and a political space in Iran focused on human rights."
Beyond seeking justice, there has been an attempt at reconciliation. Mr. Akhavan said he believed that many of those engaging in the abuse were victimized, recalling a testimony given by a man who broke down crying as he admitted that as a child he was forced to shoot survivors in the head.
"There was a dehumanization of the Iranian people through a reign of terror, deliberate brutality," Mr. Akhavan said. "They are not just struggling for democracy. They are struggling to reclaim their humanity."
As for Ayatollah Khamenei, a victim of torture under the shah and now accused of direct involvement in these crimes, Mr. Asadi believes that he underwent a complete transformation from a kindhearted, pious man to a dictator, a process he attributes to the corruption of power.
As he recalls watching Mr. Khamenei stare out the window of his cell weeping as he recited Koran and being reprimanded for outbursts of laughter with him while joking together in prison, Mr. Asadi said he would now ask him one question: "Do you remember what you said? You told me no more tears, but now you are torturing people, you are raping our women, you are killing our people."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.