Rape Inside the Prisons of Iran
As Iranian president prepares for another round of theatrics at the UN this week for the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, victims of his regime and others are routinely ignored, as Ben Cohen points out in yesterday's New York Post. It's a useful time to bring to shed light on of the Iranian regime's favoured means of crushing dissenters: institutionalized and systematic rape.
Beneath the outer horrors of repression in Iran—the scenes of brutal attacks by police and security forces against peaceful protestors witnessed in the streets of Tehran throughout 2009 and 2010—lie the underground horrors that those protestors and other political activists face once they find themselves inside Iran’s prison system. The preponderance of torture in Iran’s prisons is well documented by human rights organizations, and it’s long acknowledged that the Iranian justice system often denies detainees the right to legal representation, to a fair trial, and many are simply ‘disappeared’ within the prison system. However, rape as a form of torture is particularly prevalent as a tool used by the state to punish and debilitate dissenters.
Reports of rape in Iranian prisons- carried out by guards as well as by other prisoners- are frequent enough that it’s clear that rape and other forms of sexual assault are institutionalized as weapons against those detained, most notably political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. The extent of rape makes the Islamic Republic's claims that it is the guardian of some kind of ultra pure, moralistic society laughable, and on the contrary, demonstrates well how religious fundamentalism makes for such fertile grounds for the worst excesses of sexual perversion, which I've discussed elsewhere.
Rape is perpetrated against both men and women, and often results in severe injuries, including death. For instance, in 2009, 28-year-old Taraneh Mousavi was part of a group who gathered at a mosque in Tehran for a speech during the protests against Iran’s fraudulent elections that year. She was arrested by plainclothes security forces though it appears no formal charges were ever laid against her. Her family was never informed of her whereabouts until they received an anonymous call informing them that Taraneh was hospitalized due to her womb and anus being ruptured. Her family was unable to locate her at the hospital and meanwhile heard from witnesses that she had been mentally and physically abused as an inmate inside Iran’s infamous Evin Prison. She was seen being brought out of the prison unconscious, but has not been seen or heard from since.
Human Rights Watch documented the case of 21-year-old Maryam Sabri, who was also arrested in 2009 for having participated in post-election protests. Sabri was held for 13 days, during which she was raped four times by prison guards.
Ebrahim Sharifi, 24, was raped in prison and another young protestor, Ebrahim Mehtari, was sodomized with a baton or stick. In both cases, the men and their families were threatened by state agents against reporting the abuse or speaking publicly about what they had experienced. Sharifi has attempted suicide several times since his release.
It has also been widely reported that since it is illegal in Iran to execute a virgin, female deathrow inmates are raped by militia guards prior to their executions. Former militia members have testified in the foreign press to having raped women in their cells the nights before their executions. Iranian women’s rights activist and lawyer Shadi Sadr wrote recently in an online essay about the rapes of virgins in prison:
These reports have been substantiated by frequent statements from the relatives of women political prisoners. On the day after the execution, authorities returned their daughter’s dead body to them along with a sum considered to be the alimony. Reports state that in order to lose their virginity, girls were forced to enter into a temporary marriage with men who were in charge of their prison. Otherwise it was feared that the executed prisoner would go to heaven because she was a virgin!
Many of those trying to bring light to the epidemic of rape inside Iranian prisons believe rape is a particularly effective tactic of repression in Iranian society, where virginity is prized and any kind of sex outside of marriage, including forced, is considered defiling to women. The threat of rape can be used to silence activists, and the experience of rape, like other forms of torture, leaves survivors humiliated and struggling with deep psychological scarring. Further, rape victims may be ostracized. Shirin Sadeghi, writing about the case of Taraneh Mousavi in the Huffington Post, describes the abuse taking place in Iran’s prisons as
marking these victims as defiled human beings -- it's like a scarlet letter of social isolation against them, to deny them the community support and strength which they need to move past those memories and not be defined by them.
The prevalence of rape inside Iran’s prisons has a history starting long before the disputed elections of 2009. Shadi Sadr and blogger Mojtaba Samienejad have written about the long history of prison rape in Iran, pointing out that it goes back as far as the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Samienejad, who spent time in prison for his blogging, has bravely written publicly of the evidence of rape he witnessed while in prison: “In my two years of imprisonment, I witnessed and heard about hundreds of cases of rape.”
Despite the strict censorship imposed by the Iranian regime, the issue has nevertheless been raised frequently inside Iran by reform activists, bloggers and even by some politicians. In 1986, the deputy of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, wrote a letter to Khomeini citing the rape of young women in prison. Later, reformist politician and 2009 presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi wrote a letter to then President Rafsanjani about the rape of prisoners.
However, despite the allegations consistently resurfacing over the years, the Iranian government has systematically failed to investigate or prevent rape in prison. Following the sham 2009 elections, Iran’s Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, convened a special committee to investigate the treatment of detained protestors. However, the committee claimed that there was no evidence of rape or other mistreatment and that Mr. Karroubi’s claims "are all fabricated and designed to divert public opinion," supposedly to damage the credibility of the Islamic government (as if there were any credibility left to protect).
In other cases, the government has attempted to place blame on outside conspirators. In August 2009, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a live broadcast at Tehran University, "In some detention centers inappropriate measures have taken place for which the enemy was again responsible” adding that rape and torture were in fact carried out by “enemy agents."
While there is no evidence that any “enemy agents” have colluded in perpetrating rape inside Iranian prisons, there is, however, ample evidence that Iranian authorities are actively working to cover up evidence of rape. In September 2010, Dr. Abdolreza Soudbakhsh was shot and killed by men on motorcycle outside his office, on the same day that the physician was planning to leave the country. Dr. Soudbakhsh, a professor at Tehran University, had examined rape victims who were imprisoned at the Kahrizak detention centre, where many protestors had been held, and where numerous people were tortured to death. He had also examined bodies of those who died in the prison, including victims who died as a result of rape. Dr. Soudbakhsh‘s son reported that his father had been instructed to say that the cause of death of the prisoners was Meningitis. There has been no inquiry into the murder. Another doctor who also examined prisoners held in the same detention centre, Ramin Pourandarjani, died in November 2009 under mysterious circumstances.
Even a glimpse at the extent of the deliberate use of rape in Iran as a weapon to repress dissent makesa travesty for the legitimacy of the UN as a body protecting human rights. Back in New York, as Ben Cohen writes, "Durban III will be a platform for some of the world’s most heinous abusers of human rights to hijack the language of tolerance." The international community should instead be raising the bar, unequivocally ejecting such tyrrants from their midst until they face up to the fact that the greatest force against tolerance, peace and justice that Iranians face is in fact their own government.