Houshang’s Promise

He was kidnapped and tortured, his multi-million-dollar business was destroyed, and his family threatened. Now, as a Canadian citizen, Houshang Bouzari is going after the government of Iran through the civil court system
Photograph by Arnaud Maggs
One afternoon this past February Houshang Bouzari was trolling the Internet, as he often does, in search of news from his country of birth, Iran. Suddenly he came upon something that stopped him cold. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. What the fifty-one-year-old, who came to Canada in 1998 and received Canadian citizenship in 2002, had found was an album’s worth of pictures all set in an ancient dungeon. According to the Persian-language Web site, a once-secret prison in the middle of Tehran had been turned into a “museum of intelligence.” In this new incarnation it was going to display to Iran and the broader world the horrors of the final years of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, before the Islamic revolution in 1979 overthrew his U.S.-supported regime. The pictures showed the current president, Mohammad Khatami, touring past Madame Tussaud–style wax figures of prisoners — many of them dressed in the remnants of the traditional garb of clerics — in various states of agony. Some were presented hanging by their arms from the steel bars of cages; others had blood running down their bodies as torturers whipped them; a few were lying down, inert heaps of misery. But in one important respect, the presentation lied: the notorious dungeon had not closed down after the overthrow of the Shah, and its last prisoners were not Muslim clerics. For at least another twenty years it remained very much in operation and, in 1993 and early 1994, chained and blindfolded, Houshang Bouzari himself spent a terrible seven months in its bowels.

Any time now the Court of Appeal for Ontario is slated to bring down a decision that will affect not only Houshang Bouzari, but could potentially have a seismic impact on that torture chamber in Tehran — not to mention torture chambers in countless other places around the globe. It all stems from a project Bouzari has taken on in the safety of his new country. He and his lawyers are attempting to use the courts and the tool of the tort — the legal name for a civil action seeking redress for a harm suffered — in a novel way. Lawsuits have long been used to get compensation for a business loss, or for injuries suffered in, say, an automobile accident or a fall on an icy sidewalk. Bouzari, however, is using it to try to call to account torturers in distant places. When he initiated his suit four years ago, he had the field almost to himself. Now, it seems, newspapers report newly filed suits almost daily, including those of Canada’s two better-known international torture victims, Maher Arar and William Sampson. To Bouzari, the strategy, albeit restrained, makes eminent sense. It is a civilized response to a macabre evil. “We don’t have tanks or bombs,” he tells me, “but we have a legal system and we want to use that to make torturers pay dearly.”

In 1991, Houshang Bouzari was flying high. He was thirty-nine years old, dividing his time between Tehran and Rome. He had a Ph.D. in physics from Turin University and five years’ experience as an adviser on international affairs to the Minister of Oil for Iran. Troubled by what he describes as the increasing brutality of the Iranian regime, however, he’d decided to leave the state’s employ and go out on his own. “I could no longer work for this government. In the summer of 1988 they killed all the prisoners, thirty-eight hundred in Tehran alone, by hanging or firing squad. I couldn’t represent them at opec.” He became, instead, a consultant, a deal maker hoping to bring together Iran, which wanted to exploit its petroleum resources, and foreign companies that had the expertise to help the country do it.

His international connections helped make it work. He had been ambassador to Venezuela in 1984 and he knew where to find business partners in Italy, where he’d done his studies. He moved his wife, Fereshteh, and their two young children to Rome, and in less than four years he and his partners had started making their fortunes by putting together $3.8 billion worth of deals. (All figures are in U.S. dollars.)

Then the ideal project appeared on the horizon. Bouzari learned about a huge offshore oil and gas deposit beneath the seabed of the Persian Gulf, midway between Iran and Qatar. It’s still believed to be the richest offshore oil and gas deposit in the world, with enough natural gas, estimates Bouzari, to supply 25 trillion cubic feet per year for three hundred years. Qatar was using the U.S. companies Halliburton and Bechtel to exploit its side of the riches. Bouzari approached the National Iranian Oil Company, offering to help find the expertise Iran needed to access its end of the deposit. The potential wealth for Iran, he estimated, would be $10 billion per year.

He named the project “South Pars,” using the old Persian word for what is now Iran. In April, 1992, the consortium of five European and Japanese companies brought together by Bouzari signed a $1.78 billion contract to implement offshore drilling, platform construction, pipeline construction, and oil and gas exploration. For his services he and his company were set to receive a commission of 2 percent ($35 million).

Soon, however, an unsettling cloud drifted in. “A good friend,” he recalls, “approached me and said Mehdi Hashemi wanted to see me.” As Bouzari well knew, Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani was the twenty-four-year-old son of the then-president of Iran, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The president had five children who, in Bouzari’s words, “had been unleashed to do whatever they wanted in the international market.” Bouzari felt he had no choice but to agree to a meeting.

Over the next months a delicate, high-stakes dance took place. In a series of meetings, Mehdi offered to do what he could to “accelerate” the project. Bouzari’s unvarying response was, “Thank you, but we don’t need it.” He and his partners had already signed their contracts. But on the tango went, the son of the president continuing to up the ante from “acceleration” to “protection” and Bouzari trying to deflect him, politely but firmly, with expensive gifts — stationery from Gucci, cellphones from Nokia, a trip to London. “[Mehdi] said, ‘I have heard there is a very good masseuse in Geneva.’ I said, ‘Okay, go.’” When the bill was submitted it came to $6,000. Bouzari’s strategy, he recounts, “was to try to keep [Mehdi] away without making him angry.”

Mehdi, up to this point, had not asked specifically for money. Presently, however, the demands became more explicit. He introduced a friend, another twenty-four-year-old named Abbas Yazdan-Panah Yazdi. Suddenly Bouzari’stravel agent started getting requests for two tickets for junkets to Europe, which also foreshadowed the ripening of the shakedown. When Bouzari was in Rome with his family in May, 1993, the phone rang. It was Yazdi calling from the Hilton Park Lane Hotel in London, demanding $50 million, in order “to prevent the project from going down.” A day later, a follow-up call came from Mehdi. For Bouzari, the $50 million didn’t make sense: he and his partners stood to gain only a $35 million commission. He refused, but becoming nervous, offered $2 million and recorded the phone conversation. Soon after, on June 1, 1993, Bouzari, on a business trip to Iran, was in the apartment he kept in Tehran preparing for a meeting. At 10:30 the door buzzer rang. Three armed men entered his apartment, while another waited outside. “We are who you are to have your meeting with,” they told him. He was forced into a corner and made to sit on the floor with his head between his legs. The men ransacked the apartment, taking, among other things, the tape recording of the phone conversation with Mehdi. Then they put Bouzari in his own car, two of them following in theirs, and forced him to drive — with a gun in his ribs — to a place he knew just north of Tehran: Evin Prison, used by the intelligence ministry.

That the demands and threats from Mehdi, son of the former president, were connected to Bouzari’s subsequent detainment and torture is a theory — though a firmly held one. As Bouzari’s Toronto lawyer would later tell me, “We can’t prove it, and at first Houshang didn’t want to flaunt it because he was afraid.” But Bouzari’s statement of claim against Iran put forward the story, “and because there was no defense from Iran, those facts are now legally deemed to be true in Canada.”

They do not torture you on consecutive days,” Houshang Bouzari told me. “If you are tortured on successive days, you will die.” He was subjected to various forms of torture on a total of thirteen days over eight months, between June, 1993, and January, 1994 (the same number of days, Bouzari says, that William Sampson was tortured during his imprisonment in Saudi Arabia). On the first day, he was punched in the face. This, he felt at the time, was tolerable: “I think, punches I can take.” The next time they saw him, guards forced him to his knees and pushed his head into the Turkish toilet, a hole in the floor. As he struggled for breath, he had no choice but to ingest the feces swimming there.

He was kept at Evin Prison for forty days, then taken downtown to a secret place everyone had heard of without knowing its exact location. It was called Towhid, meaning “God is One.” “God is with us,” his captors told him upon his arrival there. “He is not with you.”

It was common knowledge that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had been kept there by the Shah: “Everybody knows his cell,” said Bouzari, “number 622 on the third tier, right side, next to the toilet.” Lifting his blindfold while left unguarded for a moment, he realized that he was in the same cell. His tortures and “interrogations” continued. The new prison was dirtier than Evin, and full of bugs. “If [the guards] were in a good mood I would get a shower every fortnight.” He sometimes saw the feet of other prisoners below his own blindfold — never their faces — but he could hear them. “People who were going to be executed would be brave enough to shout out their names.”
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