Activists join tortured union leader in exposing abuse in Iran’s prisons

Esmail Bakhshi

Iranian labor activist Esmail Bakhshi’s letter concerning torture, persecution, and maltreatment at the country’s prisons, provoked a wave of revelations about torture committed against political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.

Bakhshi’s post encouraged many others with similar experiences to speak out. “I was tortured, too,” has become a trend on social media, where people retell their stories about alleged mistreatment during detention.

Civil rights activist Sepideh Qolian, who was arrested with Bakhshi accused the regime of torture in a tweet on January 9.

“Just thinking about the 30 days of the violent and inhumane treatment still brings tears to my eyes and makes me tremble. During our arrest, Esmail Bakhshi tried to shield me from the agents’ beatings but he was beaten so badly himself, that he passed out,” Sepideh Qolian wrote backing the labor activist’s accounts of torture.

The civil rights activist said that Esmail Bakhshi was tortured and beaten so severely that during the first 10 days of her detention, she thought that he had died under torture.

Qolian also said that she could not eat nor tell whether it was day or night in the first 10 days. She said that she cried out until the agents became annoyed and took her next to an interrogation room where she heard the voice of the labor activist and was relieved to find out he was alive.

She also recounted the sexual verbal abuse, calling it worse than the physical torture.

“I wish that the only method of torture was the beatings. The most painful part was the sexual accusations that they bombarded me with in a place where I knew no one would hear even if I cried out.”

“On the last day, the interrogator told me that if I say anything when I leave prison they would broadcast the forced confessions that me and Esmail Bakhshi made on the news and that they will turn us into dust,” she wrote adding that she was humiliated and degraded because of the color of her hair and the style of her clothing.

The mother of imprisoned civil rights activist Atena Daemi recently spoke about the abuse directed against her daughter.

“I cried when I saw Mr. Bakhshi talking about his torture. It made me angry,” Masoumeh Nemati said.

“I thought I should also write about the hell we have gone through. I should make the people aware that this is not just Mr. Bakhshi’s story. It’s my daughter’s story, too.”

“Atena was in solitary confinement for three months. She never told me how she had been tortured but I heard her friends and sisters say that during interrogation agents had threatened to kill me and her sisters in a staged accident. They said they could easily kill her sisters because they knew where they worked and which university they went to. Hearing these things during interrogation is more agonizing and painful than physical torture. What did my 27-year-old daughter do? They are still trying to press bogus charges against her,” she said.

Masoud Alizadeh spent time at the notorious but currently abandoned Kahrizak detention center, south of Tehran. The facility is where hundreds of detained protesters in the wake of the country’s 2009 disputed presidential election were tortured. At least three prisoners died there.

Alizadeh has now shared horrific details of one Kahrizak night, when he was hung upside down and beaten for 20 minutes nonstop along with two other prisoners. “I was bleeding … I couldn’t believe it. But it was true. All my pains and cries were true … it was nothing but real death. I couldn’t help nightmares …”

Esmail Bakhshi reveals jail torture, challenges minister to TV Debate

Bakhshi was a union leader and worker at a sugarcane factory in Iran’s southwestern town of Shush, which was rocked with protests and strikes last year in response to months of delayed wages.

He was released from detention December 12, after being held for several weeks on national security charges.

On January 6, Esmail Bakhshi addressed Iran’s Intelligence Minister, Mahmoud Alavi, in his Instagram post, demanding to know why he was tortured “to the brink of death”. 

“Weeks after my release, I still feel intolerable pain in my broken ribs, left ear, and testicles,” Bakhshi wrote in an Instagram post on January 5 in which he detailed the alleged abuse he endured.

“I was so badly battered that I could not move for 72 hours in my solitary confinement cell,” he added. “The pain was so unbearable that it made sleeping impossible.”

Balkhshi challenged Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi, a mid-ranking cleric, to a live TV debate concerning the alleged torture of detainees.

“As a cleric, and from the moral and human rights point of view, tell us what is the sentence for those who torture prisoners? Is torturing prisoners permissible? If it is, to what extent? Does the ministry you run have the right to secretly monitor private telephone conversations?”

Esmail Bakhshi and his family were under pressure by Iran’s security system to take back his statement on being tortured “to the brink of death” while in prison.

“After the torture was brought up, pressure against Esmail Bakhshi intensified and there is evidence that suggests that my client is under pressure and that there is a psychological environment against him to deny the torture,” his lawyer Farzaneh Zilani said today in an interview with an Iranian website.

Authorities reject the labor activist’s torture claims

Just days after the publication of the labor activist’s letter, Amoli Larijani ordered that an “independent” team be sent to the region to “review the various dimensions of the issue and present the report to the people as soon as possible.”

“These kinds of issues are very important to us as there have never been such offences in the foundations of the Islamic Republic, the judiciary, security and intelligence agencies,” the cleric said.

“We consider this legally and religiously prohibited,” Larijani said.

Iran’s Chief Justice said that “one interrogator’s alleged misconduct should not be blamed on the whole system.”

Meanwhile, The Chief of Staff of the President of Iran rejected the labor activist’s torture claims adding that the Intelligence Ministry would press charges against the labor activist.

“Today, the Minister of Intelligence provided a report on his investigations into Esmail Bakhshi’s claims (of torture), and it became clear that Bakhshi’s claims are in no way true,” Mahmoud Vaezi said in comments carried by the ISNA news agency.

The government official did not cite the details of the report or how the torture claims were rejected without a medical examiner’s investigation.  

“Last week on the President’s orders, the Minister of Intelligence sent a delegation to Khuzestan province which examined all the relevant areas. Today the Intelligence Minister presented his report to the government. In these investigations, they even talked to Esmail Bakhshi,” he said.

According to Vaezi, the labor activist’s torture claims were “propaganda.” 

Morever, Kayhan — a hard-line paper close to the office of the supreme leader — rushed to judgment. In a satirical column, the paper dismissed the claims and even made fun of them, asking why Bakhshi waited until weeks after his release to come out with claims of torture.

In reaction to widespread outrage and overwhelming support on Bakhshi, some regime officials had to take figurative measures but have taken no concrete actions.

On January 6, 2019, Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei claimed the authorities would investigate if Bakhshi lodged a formal complaint.

“If he files a complaint the Intelligence Ministry will pursue this matter and certainly the judiciary would investigate as well. We have to see how things go along. If he files a complaint a prosecutor would take the case and also if the Intelligence Ministry discovers any violations it would definitely inform the judiciary,” Ejei told reporters.

Hassan Rouhani has also ordered an investigation into claims by a mill workers representative that he was tortured while in detention.

Hessamoddin Ashena, an adviser to Rouhani, wrote on his Telegram account that the president ordered a probe into the claim of violence against Esmail Bakhshi.

But Sepideh Qolian tweeted on January 9, about how the Ministry of Intelligence had “investigated” the torture claims.

“On Monday I was summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence again. Two people who called themselves “investigative” agents asked me about what happened during my 30 days of detention and after my explanations said that what Esmail Bakhshi and I were saying about tortures were just delusions,” the young woman tweeted.

“They have ended their investigations. I have decided to present my explanations not to the agents but to the people. Speaking of torture is not just a description of a personal pain but rather an account of the systematic violence that security institutions use against prisoners. Denying or reducing it to the mistake of one interrogator is ludicrous and of course very painful,” she wrote referring to the statement by Iran’s Chief Justice who wanted to blame the whole thing on one interrogator.