An arbitrarily detained woman, facing unjust imprisonment in Iran, has provided a detailed account of her violent abduction amid mass arrests of peaceful protesters who were beaten and coerced into signing forced confessions, as per testimony obtained by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“I had been abducted. The others whom I was talking to were also abducted. They hadn’t done or said anything,” stated Zahra Shafiei-Dehaghani, a filmmaker and human rights activist.
On September 16, 2023*, the day of Shafiei-Dehaghani’s arrest in Tehran, hundreds of other protesters were arbitrarily detained. This day marked the anniversary of the outbreak of anti-state protests throughout Iran, triggered the year before by the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini while in state custody.
“The officers had beaten them and put them in the van… They forced confessions out of a lot of detainees,” said Shafiei-Dehaghani in an audio file sent from prison, in which she described her arrest and the inhumane treatment of protesters by state security forces.
Shafiei-Dehaghani’s testimony is among dozens received by CHRI and forwarded to the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Iran. This mission was established in November 2022 to investigate atrocities by Iranian officials committed since the outbreak of protests that year, which transformed into the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement.
Between September 2022, when the protests commenced, and January 2023, Iran’s security forces used lethal force to quell the protests, resulting in the deaths of over 500 protesters, including numerous children. Moreover, more than 22,000 individuals were detained in this period. On the anniversary of the protests, state security forces conducted mass arbitrary arrests of people on the streets in the capital, which “created the impression that no one had come to the street at all.”
“This brave woman has risked her safety and freedom to shed light on her brutal and unlawful detainment,” said Hadi Ghaemi, Executive Director of CHRI. “Regrettably, she stands among numerous individuals in Iran who have endured similar violence in state custody for their involvement in peaceful protests and dissent.”
“These crimes must be thoroughly investigated by the UN’s Fact-Finding Mission on Iran and the international community should hold Iranian officials accountable for their atrocities against protesters and political prisoners,” added Ghaemi.
CHRI expresses deep concern for Shafiei-Dehaghani and countless detained protesters. Her act of speaking out exposes her to extreme violence and imprisonment by Iranian authorities, who have a history of punishing individuals for publicly discussing politically motivated cases against them.
CHRI urges human rights organizations and concerned citizens to widely share Shafiei-Dehaghani’s story and demand justice and freedom for all peaceful protesters in Iran. Her case, likely to be tried in secret and representative of countless others, reflects the arbitrary detention, torture, forced false “confessions” and denial of due process for detained protesters that is systematically employed in Iran to silence peaceful dissent.
CHRI Condemns Arbitrary Detainment, Demands Release of Protesters
Shafiei-Dehaghani, aged 46, has been arbitrarily detained for more than three months, enduring detention in Qarchak Prison and subsequently at Evin Prison, both located in Tehran Province. Qarchak is particularly infamous for its inhumane conditions. Shockingly, she has been held without any clarity on the charges against her, a violation of her right to due process.
In early November 2023, Dehaghani was transferred from Qarchak Prison to Evin, where she was isolated in solitary confinement within Ward 209, controlled by the state’s Intelligence Ministry.
Despite facing medical issues necessitating treatment and the lack of a formal detention order, she endured prolonged interrogations lasting for a month and a half. This information was disclosed by a source well-versed with the case, who, for safety reasons, preferred to remain anonymous while speaking to CHRI.
A week later, she was transferred to a ward specifically designated for political prisoners. Despite being kept in the dark about any charges brought against her, Shafiei-Dehaghani may potentially face trial in the upcoming weeks of November 2023, at Branch 26 of Iran’s Revolutionary Courts, overseen by Judge Iman Afshari.
This court system is notorious for depriving individuals accused of dissent or peaceful activism of their fundamental due process rights. It subjects them to sham trials where independent counsel and the opportunity to present a full defense are denied.
Earlier, on October 10, 2023, a few weeks after she was initially arrested, security agents raided Shafiei-Dehaghani’s home and confiscated personal belongings, including books, articles, and scientific works belonging to her and her daughter.
Portions of Shafiei-Dehaghani’s testimony, translated from Persian into English by CHRI and shared here, shed light on the inhumane treatment of peaceful protesters in Iran. This warrants investigation by human rights experts, including the UN’s Fact-Finding Mission on Iran.
Mass, Violent Arrests of Peaceful Protesters, Including Children, by Masked Forces
In an audio recording obtained by CHRI, Shafiei-Dehaghani recounted the violent and unexplained arrest of herself and hundreds of others on September 16, 2023, at 6 o’clock in the evening in Tehran, by masked officers who refused to disclose their identities and beat the detainees.
“I was walking along Revolution Street when suddenly, near the French pastry shop, I saw several chador-clad women in military attire, wearing black masks on their faces. There were numerous individuals present, including some male officers without name tags, along with plainclothes agents, all dressed uniformly in black shirts and pants.
As I crossed the street, one of the female officers forcefully grabbed and twisted my arm. I questioned her actions, asking, ‘How much are you being paid to do this? Why?’ She responded with curses and subjected me to unbelievable physical assault.
I was severely beaten. They bound my hands behind my back and repeatedly struck me on the head, face, and back. One of the female officers brutally kicked me in the back.
When I cried out for help, plainclothes men intervened and forced me into a van. Inside, I was shocked to find many young girls and boys among those arrested. The girls, all in hijabs, questioned the officers, asking, ‘Why have you arrested us? What have we done?’ Whenever the boys tried to defend the girls, they were brutally assaulted. Numerous girls sustained severe injuries.
Shafiei-Dehaghani noted that among the estimated 600-700 detainees taken by unidentified state security forces that night, on September 16, 2023, there were “children and adolescents.”
The actions of state security forces completely cleared the streets, which “created the impression that no one had come to the street at all.”
The detainees were initially taken to a “Police Assistance Unit” station, which is often used to suppress street protests, then later moved to a mosque within the unit.
“Presently [as of September 23, 2023], I’m in Qarchak Prison along with around 70 women who were arrested that day and are now in the prison’s quarantine unit. Initially, everyone was taken to a military facility located on Afsarieh and Tejareh streets, adjacent to the Takhti Club. It was a station utilized by the Police Assistance Unit to quell street protests…
That night, approximately 600 to 700 of us were relocated to the Police Assistance Unit station, with more individuals continually brought in. We were held in a mosque within this compound, while the men were held in another mosque. Detained women encompassed various age groups, including children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly.”
Shafiei-Dehaghani highlighted that even months later, “youths aged 19 and 20” remained detained alongside her at Qarchak Prison.
Forced “Confessions” Under Extreme Duress
Shafiei-Dehaghani described persistent attempts by arresting forces to coerce individuals into confessing to crimes, utilizing violence, threats, and deceitful promises of swift release. Again, the officers adamantly refused to reveal their identities.
“They extracted confessions from numerous detainees, assuring us that upon the judge’s arrival, we would be released. However, that night, despite the judge’s absence, the officers segregated the detainees and relocated them within the same military premises.”
One officer claimed, ‘I’m an investigator on duty.’ When I asked for his name, he retorted, ‘My name is none of your concern. After you complete the form, I’ll sign it, and you can see my name.’ However, when he signed it, his name was not included in the form.
I overheard numerous threats. Many detainees, unfamiliar with prison or detention, fell prey to officers’ deceptive assurances that signing the form would expedite their release. Regrettably, the form served as a coerced confession. Witnessing the distress, I observed many of them in tears after completing the form.”
Overcrowding, Denial of Medical Treatment
Shafiei-Dehaghani highlighted the dire consequences of overcrowding, subjecting detainees to uncomfortable conditions as they were transported to another unknown location.
“When they intended to transfer us from the military location to the prison, all detainees were fitted with plastic handcuffs. Due to a shortage of restraints, two individuals were handcuffed together.
About 70 people were crammed into a windowless bus, making it extremely challenging to breathe. The overcrowded bus created such congestion among detainees that I couldn’t even discern the direction the driver was taking.”
Shafiei-Dehaghani and the detainees faced threats, compelling them to refrain from reporting their ordeals, under the threat of violence. Despite requiring medical attention, those in need were only superficially examined and denied the medical treatment they required.
“Upon our arrival at Qarchak Prison under distressing circumstances, the prison official inquired with their handlers, ‘Are they all unharmed?’ to which he affirmed, ‘Yes, everyone is safe.’
The handler had threatened us against disclosing any information about the beatings received. However, during my interaction with the prison officer, I disclosed everything. I reported that the officer overseeing the detainee transfer had threatened us, and detainees had sustained injuries.
Among them, one or two individuals with severe injuries were initially sent for treatment. Upon their return, they informed me that although they were taken to the doctor, they only received a basic examination before being sent back to prison.”
Considering Shafiei-Dehaghani’s imminent trial without proper access to due process, it is crucial for human rights organizations to highlight the violations of her fundamental rights and advocate for her release.
“Shafiei-Dehaghani’s imprisonment is unlawful; her actions involved peaceful protest, which is ostensibly protected under the Islamic Republic of Iran’s own laws,” stated Ghaemi.
“World leaders and the UN must forcefully and repeatedly demand her freedom, as well as the freedom of the many other unlawfully held detainees and political prisoners in Iran,” Ghaemi added, “and communicate to the authorities in Iran that political and economic consequences will intensify with the continuation of this violent suppression of peaceful dissent.”
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on November 17, 2023, to reflect that Zahra Shafiei-Dehaghani was arrested on September 16, 2023, not 2022.
Second publication by courtesy of Iran Human Rights