Iranian regime keeps Ahwazi women prisoners locked, despite coronavirus fears worsen


by Rahim Hamid and Mostafa Hetteh

Zahra was one of the hundreds of Ahwazi women who were arrested, tortured, and persecuted in Ahwaz, for two reasons: the first is because she is a woman, and the second is that she is Arab…

Fresh outrage has rocked the Ahwaz region in Iran at the discovery that the regime’s decision to release 85,000 prisoners to reduce the risk of coronavirus in prisons did not include even one of the tens of thousands of male and female Ahwazi political prisoners detained in the regime’s massively overcrowded jails. This follows recent remarks by the regime’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Ismaili, who announced the decision to release 10,000 prisoners in honour of Nowruz celebrations, indicating that half of those released would be security prisoners.

‘Security prisoner’ is a term used to refer to any detainee charged by the regime with being a threat to Iran’s national security, a charge commonly used against activists and dissidents.

The release of the 85,000 detainees was also announced by Ismaili, at a news conference on Tuesday. The announcement raised the hope of thousands of Ahwazi prisoners’ families that their loved ones, many arrested for protesting or speaking out against the regime, might be coming home. These hopes were quickly dashed upon discovering that no Ahwazis were included in the amnesty.

At least 150 male Ahwazi political prisoners are currently detained in Ward 5 of the regime’s infamous Shaiban Prison a few kilometres outside the regional capital city, also named Ahwaz, while a further 250 male Ahwazi prisoners of conscience are detained in Ward 8 of the same prison.

Activists have also expressed extreme concern for the safety of several female Ahwazi political prisoners detained in the regime’s notorious Sepidar Prison. According to reports from the prison and the accounts of former detainees there like labour rights activist Sepideh Gholian, the situation in the already infamously harsh prison is deteriorating, with prison warders apparently delighting in abusing, beating and humiliating the detainees, several of whom have reportedly committed suicide as a result.

Gholian reported that the women’s section in Sepidar Prison is massively overcrowded, posing a high risk that the coronavirus will spread rapidly.

Gholian further revealed that the women’s section is regularly flooded with foul-smelling raw sewage due to regular breakdowns in the prison’s dilapidated ageing sewage network which is incapable of dealing with the volume of waste. The former detainee further revealed that there is rarely any functioning water supply to the prison, meaning that the detainees are left without water for drinking, bathing or flushing the toilets, adding that these conditions are the ideal breeding ground for lethal viruses and other diseases.

Ms Gholian revealed on her Twitter account that the torture she witnessed by prison personnel against female Ahwazi activists was continuous and systematic, occurring throughout the entire duration of her imprisonment. Gholian, who was imprisoned over her coverage of labour strikes in Ahwaz, reported that among the most common methods of torture she saw used by prison staff, and Iranian Ministry of Intelligence personnel were beatings, psychological torture, insults, various forms of humiliation, and sexual abuse.

The labour activist also spoke about the “forced confessions” and the effects of the torture on the Ahwazi female prisoners’ bodies and psyches, stating that the women are tortured specifically because of their “Arab and female” identity.

Despite the regime’s claims that there are no political prisoners in Iran, the reality is very different, with tens of thousands arrested and imprisoned every year, often on multiple occasions for the ‘crime’ of opposing or being rumoured to oppose the regime. This brutality is double for minorities such as Ahwazis, with the persecution of Ahwazis ratcheting up whenever the regime is engaged in hostilities with neighbouring Gulf Arab states.

Following a September 2018 attack on a military parade in Ahwaz by the regime’s infamous and hated Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the regime launched a mass arrest campaign, seizing hundreds of Ahwazi activists and their family members. Tehran labelled many civilian Ahwazis as ‘accomplices’ of the attackers and falsely accused them of being members of terrorist groups such as ISIS.

This smear campaign targeted completely apolitical individuals completely uninvolved in any political or civil rights movements, and pointedly ignored the fact that the actual attackers involved in the attack on the military parade were all killed at the time. Without hesitation or any moral consideration, Iranian security and judicial authorities arrested even several Ahwazi women in connection with their husbands’ political and cultural activities.

Dozens of these Ahwazi female prisoners, mostly arrested over their husbands’ political activities were initially transferred to Tehran, then to Hamedan and finally to Sepidar prison in Ahwaz. There are nine dormitory cells in the women’s section of Sepidar Prison, with 220 women detained there on various charges.

According to family members, many of these women were coerced into signing false confessions by torture, including sexual abuse, and threats to relatives, with some forced to sign patently false “confessions” admitting to being associated with ISIS. The women were subjected to kangaroo trials, lasting only a few minutes and denied the opportunity to appoint defence lawyers.

Complaints made by family members of prisoners about clearly sham trials and false accusations against the women, and their demands for an investigation have been ignored. Instead, the detained women have received lengthy prison sentences.

Now, the additional worry of the spread of coronavirus in prisons across the country and the regime’s decision not to include any of the women or any other Ahwazis in its prisoner amnesty has added further suffering to the existing massive stress on the detained women and their families.

London-based International law and human rights researcher, Abdulrahman Hetteh commented: “In this time of crisis that COVID-19 has infected thousands of people in Iran, the authorities declared taking some measures, including releasing prisoners across the country who are at risk of contracting the virus in prison facilities. However, Ahwazi prisoners, including women, were excluded from this opportunity. This is obviously a discriminatory action against Ahwazi prisoners who should be treated equally as other similarly positioned prisoners.   The Iranian authorities have no regards for the life of the Ahwazi detainees. Thanks to the disregard from international human rights bodies, the situation of Ahwazi detainees as a result of the widespread of coronavirus in prisons across Iran, is dire and life-threatening.”

Hetteh added, “It is heart-breaking to hear the appeal of voiceless Ahwazi women who suffer silently in prisons without any hope to be in a safe place with their family in this critical time. The unjust and biased treatment of people based on their ethnicity is in violation of international law and human rights treaties that were signed and ratified by Iran and of which Iran has obligations to respect.”

Adding insult to injury, prison officers, clearly acting on the direct orders of the regime’s infamous intelligence service, have reportedly imposed massive bail sums to secure the women’s release, far beyond the ability of their families to pay. This habit of treating bail and parole for political prisoners as a revenue generator is a typical regime strategy.

One of the female prisoners held in Sepidar Prison is 23-year-old Sahba Hamadi, a married mother whose infant son was just over a year old when she was arrested by regime intelligence operatives in Khafajieh city in October 2018. Hamadi, an online activist, had previously been arrested and questioned by regime intelligence services for protesting against the regime’s discriminatory employment policies and anti-Arab bigotry. Following her arrest, she was held incommunicado for six months in an unknown location believed to be one of the regime’s notorious unofficial black site prisons widely known for their torture practices. During her detention there, she was allowed to contact her family once, although she could not inform them of her whereabouts. Her family reported that she was forced by torture, abuse and threats to kill her husband and child to make clearly false televised confessions. In March 2019, she was transferred to Sepidar Prison where she was informed two months later that she had been sentenced to death by hanging.

In November 2019, her death sentence was reduced to 15 years in prison. Meanwhile, her husband Hussein was also arrested and incarcerated in the equally infamous Shaiban Prison, while their now three-year-old son is being cared for by her mother, who is also imprisoned there.

In prison, Hamadi is denied any right to prison visits from family members and subjected to the constant abuse which prison personnel reserve for political prisoners (ironically violent criminals are not subjected to this abusive treatment); any complaints at the atrocious conditions, inedible food which itself makes many prisoners sick, lack of hygiene and sanitation which leads to infestations with lice and other diseases, and lack of essential sanitary services like soap or menstrual pads is greeted with physical and verbal abuse from prison staff, with the verbal abuse often characterised by racist anti-Arab epithets and insults.Video Player00:0000:54

Hamadi’s father reported that officials demanded a payment of 40 billion Iranian riyals.

Hamadi’s father reported in a recent video circulated on social media that prison officials demanded a payment of 40 billion Iranian riyals simply to release his daughter for a short furlough to allow her to see her family.

He explained that his family which is already enduring financial hardship had only managed to raise a small amount of money towards this massive sum for funds to help secure her release and appealed for donations to help raise the remainder. His video has spread widely across social media in Iran, with many human rights groups voicing anger and disgust at the regime’s vast cruelty in imposing such a massive sum as bail, effectively doubling the suffering it has already imposed on an unjustly imprisoned young woman and her family by using bail as a moneymaking scheme.

As Hamadi’s father asked rhetorically in the video, at a time like the present when the average monthly salary of an Iranian state employee is 30 million riyals, it would still take over 100 years for them to gather 40 billion so how is it possible to expect ordinary Ahwazis to come up with such a vast sum?

Another female Ahwazi prisoner who has endured similar suffering and horrific injustice is Makieh Neisi, an activist and mother of three children, now aged five, seven and eight; Gholian revealed that Neisi was arrested in 2018 along with her brothers to force her husband, Sadeq, a dissident wanted by the regime for his steadfast opposition who had fled into exile, to return to Iran; if he does so, there is little doubt that he will be tortured, forced to surrender the names of other dissidents, and killed. This blackmail effort by the regime has been unsuccessful, with Neisi and her brothers still imprisoned, while her husband’s whereabouts are unknown. Following her detention, Neisi was detained in solitary confinement by the regime intelligence services before being sent to a faraway prison in Khorramabad city, the capital of Lorestan Province. After ten days she was transferred to Sepidar Prison, where she is still being held on remand without any charge, effectively being incarcerated as a hostage and blackmail tool against her husband by the regime.

The Iranian intelligence ministry of intelligence informed Makia and her family, most of whom are in detention, leaving her children effectively orphaned, that no member of her family will be released until her husband brings himself forward, which will mean his inevitable arrest and worse.

Gholian reported that the conditions in which Neisi is being held are unspeakably dire; while working in the prison to try and raise what pitiful funds she can to provide for her children, being cared for by her sister, the only family member not imprisoned who is herself suffering financial poverty. Makieh is also enduring regular torture, threats, beatings and months of solitary confinement. Again, it should be emphasised that she has committed no crime, but is being held simply as a way to pressurise her absent husband.

Zahra Husseini
Zahra Husseini/FILEPHOTO

Another case cited by Gholian is that of Zahra Husseini from the Hasirabad neighbourhood of Ahwaz city, another young Ahwazi woman imprisoned in Sepidar. Husseini, aged 24, has been held since November 2018. As with Maika Neisi, she is being used as a hostage and held without charge in an effort to force her husband, a dissident in exile, to return and surrender himself to the authorities. Hosseini, who has two young daughters, has been subjected regularly to torture. Gholian recalled encountering her, saying, “I saw bruises on her hands and feet when she was moved to Evin prison for the first time to take her fingerprints. She was held as hostage by the Iranian intelligence. They want to arrest her husband who they allege he is a member of terror groups. She has been in temporary detention since November 2018 and spent five months in the intelligence detention facility in Ahwaz.”

Gholian added that Hosseini had confessed under coercion and torture to crimes fabricated by regime personnel, signing false confessions simply to enable her to be allowed to see her daughters.

Revealing her own horrendous experiences and those of her fellow female detainees in Sepidar Prison, Gholian recalled being taken, blindfolded, for interrogation one night. “I could hear some voices,” she wrote. “I heard the voice of a woman coming towards the interrogation room. The interrogation rooms were near to each other, and we could hear all the interrogations.” She continued: “On the first day of my interrogation, there was an unknown woman being interrogated; the interrogation continued all through the night until morning, and I remember that the interrogators wanted her to confess that she was from ISIS, and she was just saying: ‘I am Sunni, but I am not an ISIS supporter!’ Suddenly, the sound of the beating rang out … She was screaming, and the interrogators were hitting her hard, saying, ‘Do not raise your voice – confess what you are so we can leave you alone’, and then we did not hear any more voices.’”

Gholian continued: “Two days later, they took me blindfolded in a car, and two other women were with me. When we got to our destination, they removed the blindfolds from our eyes. I saw the two other women; one of them was suffering from bruises on her face, they had brought us to take our fingerprints, and we took the opportunity to talk to each other, though the guard warned us not to say anything. We asked about each other’s conditions, we showed our wounds to each other, and we talked about our fears. In the end, Zahra said: ‘Aren’t you the one who was being interrogated two days ago in the next room? They were telling you that you are communist, and they were attacking you.’ I said: ‘Yes, my dear Zahra, and was it you whom they were trying to accuse, that you are an ISIS associate?’”

Gholian continued: “We became sisters since that day, and we spent several months in the prison, which angered the security officers. Zahra was one of the hundreds of Ahwazi women who were arrested, tortured, and persecuted in Ahwaz, for two reasons: the first is because she is a woman, and the second is that she is Arab.”

Gholian also wrote about other Ahwazi women prisoners, such as Wafa Heidari from Ahwaz.

Wafa’s husband was granted asylum in Sweden, but when Wafa attempted to flee the country in order to join her husband, she was detained at the airport and is still in jail, because her husband is Sunni. As is common in Iran, particularly with non-Persian ethnicities, the authorities arrested the activist’s wife for holding her as a hostage until such time as they can take him into custody.

Yet another activist, Fatemeh Tounitzadeh, suffered a similar fate, and has been held in ‘temporary’ custody in Sepidar prison since October 2018, without any due process or trial. Similarly, Khulud Sabhani, a 20-year-old woman, the daughter of Fatemeh Tounitzadeh from Khafajiyeh city, has been detained since even before the 2018 attack on the IRGC parade, despite which she is being arrested as an ‘accomplice’ to the attack. As Gholian noted, she could not possibly have been involved in the attack since she was already in regime custody when the attack took place.

Many women are imprisoned together with family members, like Masoumeh Saidawi, 48, who has been in temporary custody with her family since early October 2018. Another family member, 45-year-old Susan Saidawi, has been in ‘’temporary custody with her family since early October 2018, with her daughter Somaieh, whose husband Fouad Mansouri was involved in the attack on the IRGC parade, has been in ‘temporary ‘ with her mother since early October; although there is no suggestion that any of the women were involved in or had any knowledge of the attack and although Fouad Mansouri and the other attackers were all killed on the day of the attack, the women are being held apparently as ‘revenge’.

At the time of her arrest, Somaieh Saidawi was three months pregnant. During her interrogation, she was shown graphic footage and images of her husband’s remains with his body dismembered and mutilated after he was killed by regime troops; the shock, along with the stress and abuse, induced a miscarriage. After she was tortured into ‘confessing’ to crimes she had no knowledge of and spending six months in solitary confinement, she was transferred to Sepidar Prison. Despite suffering horrendous medical problems and severe pain as a result of her miscarriage and torture at the hands of regime personnel, she was denied the chance of a transfer to hospital. Due to her worsening condition, she launched a hunger strike in an effort to get medical treatment, but following further abuse and threats by prison staff to move her to solitary confinement, she eventually abandoned it.

Other innocent women imprisoned in Sepidar Prison include 34-year-old Sakineh Saghouri from the Kian neighbourhood of Ahwaz city. Saghouri, the mother of a one-year-old baby, was also imprisoned previously in Evin Prison for several months and later released on bail, and rearrested after the attack on the IRGC parade. Her one-year-old baby Fatima is also with her in prison. Her family says Sakineh is not eating well as the food quality is so bad and her baby is not nursing from her and is suffering from severe malnourishment. 

Zahra Shajirat, a 37-year-old mother of three children, has been held without charge in temporary custody since December 2018, while 19-year-old Elahe Darvishi from Shooshtar city was pregnant when she was arrested in October the same year. Her baby was born in prison and now is with her in the cell, her baby also suffers from malnourishment. After six months of detention in one of the intelligence service’s detention centres, Elahe was transferred to Tehran. As with Somaieh Saidawi, Darvishi’s husband, Hassan, was among the attackers at the IRGC parade, and was also killed there.  Also, as with Saidawi, Darvishi had no connection with the attack, but is being held apparently as an act of revenge.

Another detainee in Sepidar Prison, 26-year-old Maryam Afzali, was arrested on Naderi Street in Ahwaz in November 2018 for the ‘crime’ of wearing a red keffiyeh scarf; she is still being held without charge in temporary custody.

New York-based human rights attorney Irina Tsukerman commented: “These practices are illegal under Iran’s own constitution and under international law, and are abusive and amount to torture. Any form of torture is in violation of the United Nations Convention against Torture. Physical and mental abuse, forced confessions, and degrading or cruel policies all fall under such provisions. Use of hostage-taking of innocent women whose only crime is to be married or related to activists is likewise completely illegal; there is nothing legitimate against using such a method. The racist and religious discrimination compounds the unconscionable nature of the arrests and imprisonment. Abuse of pregnant women and children is condemned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; the fact that these children are born in prison cells and malnourished is yet another mark of shame on the regime, that engages in illegal, illegitimate, and abusive practices against all its citizens. Racial and religious discrimination compounds the abuses these unfortunate women have to suffer; they are victimised many times over because of their identity, based merely on the facts of their birth they cannot control.”

“The horrors unveiled by this report are so despicable that the feminists from everywhere in the Western world should be outraged and marching in millions on the street to pressure the regime into releasing these women and children immediately. Ensuring the safety of expectant and nursing mothers and their infants should be a clear priority for every human rights NGO. Instead, there is ignorance and international silence of this ongoing issue. I commented about these particularly horrific abuses which mark every totalitarian regime with the same brand of shame twice before: in another previous report and on the John Batchelor radio show. Since then, however, nothing has changed; these outrageous facts have fallen on deaf ears. While the world is preoccupied with coronavirus, the regime cover-up of its own situation puts these abused and malnourished prisoners in life-threatening danger on top of everything else they are already experiencing, which will only expand the toll from the pandemic.”

“The regime demands humanitarian aid from the international community to combat the infection, but any aid should come conditioned that the most vulnerable members of the society will be prioritised; that women and children will not be denied medical treatment, that the aid will reach Ahwazis and Sunnis, just as much as Persians and Shia, and that these prisoners will be released into the safety of their homes and allowed adequate medical treatment.”

Without broader coverage, these abuses will continue to be ignored and overlooked. The regime that endangers the safety of its citizens and deliberately discriminated against Ahwazis, Sunnis, and abuses and endangers women and children should not be immune from scrutiny, international pressure, or oversight over the distribution of any international humanitarian aid. Providing aid with no strings attached will ensure that only the regime apparatchiks will benefit, while prisoners of conscience and victims of human rights abuses will remain untreated and ignored.

Article first published on Dur Untash Studies Center.

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @samireza42.

Mostafa Hetteh is a writer and journalist. he tweets under @mostafahetteh.

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