No Comment — December 22, 2009, 12:52 pm

Doctors and Torture, Iran Edition

Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal reports on the mysterious death of Ramin Pourandarjani, a heroic young doctor who defied authorities by refusing to sign death certificates to cover up persons tortured to death at Tehran’s notorious Kahrizak detention center during the Green Revolution last July. But he went a step beyond this, testifying to a parliamentary committee about the abuses he witnessed and demanding accountability. Then, on November 10, Dr. Pourandarjani was discovered dead at a military clinic where he worked.

Over a period of nearly three weeks, Dr. Pourandarjani was called to the prison four times to treat the wounds of the detainees, according to his parents and Iranian media reports. At least three prisoners died during this time. One of them was Mohsen Ruholamini, the 19-year-old son of a conservative politician, who died in late July. The government publicly blamed Mr. Ruholamini’s death on meningitis. Mr. Ruholamini’s family immediately disputed that. In public statements at the time, his father, Abdol-Hossein Ruholamini, said his son suffered a broken jaw and died from torture in prison. In the medical report, Dr. Pourandarjani described Mr. Ruholamini’s cause of death as physical stress, multiple blows to the head and chest, and severe injuries, according to the doctor’s family and local press reports…

Over the next few months, security authorities called in Dr. Pourandarjani for interrogation, according to family members and reports in the Iranian media. They ordered him to revise the cause of death on medical reports from physical wounds to meningitis, his family members say. He refused. When the parliamentary committee called him to testify, he told them what he had witnessed, his family says. Dr. Pourandarjani’s statements to the committee aren’t public record, and the committee has said it won’t make its findings public. In the fall, Dr. Pourandarjani was arrested. According to his family and official Iranian media reports, he was detained in Tehran for a few days and interrogated by the police and medical officials. Family members say he was warned that if he continued to challenge the authorities, he could face medical malpractice charges and jail, as well as the loss of his medical license. Iranian officials say in public statements that the doctor was questioned about whether he had given detainees appropriate medical care.

He was released on bail and continued working at the military health clinic, where he also lived in order to save money. He downloaded applications for medical schools in France and Germany and told friends he wanted to study abroad. His military service would end in April 2010. He asked his mother to look out for a nice young woman in Tabriz for him to marry. In October, a few weeks before he died, both parents say Dr. Pourandarjani confided in them that he feared for his life because he refused to cover up what he had seen at the prison. He described threatening phone calls and said he was being followed.

Was Dr. Pourandarjani murdered by figures anxious that his exposure of torture and abuse at the prison could lead to prosecutions? That’s what it looks like. Iranian authorities have, in any event, scurried for a cover-up for his death, too. Their efforts have been extremely awkward. First they claimed he died in a car accident, then it was a heart attack, then suicide, and finally poisoning. Dr. Pourandarjani was an inconvenient witness to government-sponsored criminality.

The case points to the problems that doctors face in states that practice torture, like Chile and Argentina in the seventies, or Iran and the United States today. Doctors are inevitably roped into the process—either to oversee it, or to cover up the deaths that result from the approved techniques. In investigations of torture-homicides by U.S. authorities during the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” for instance, death certificates either facilitated a cover-up or exposed a homicide–much more frequently the former. This suggests that any number of American doctors were presented with the demands that Dr. Pourandarjani faced, and gave in to them. The fate of Dr. Pourandarjani also shows why professional organizations must not remain silent in the face of state-sponsored torture that seeks to silence or coopt medical professionals.

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