Inside Iran’s ‘unimaginable’ prisons: ex-prisoners explain conditions as anti-regime protests hit six months

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Thousands of Iranians have been imprisoned over the last six months of protests in Iran. NationalWorld spoke to ex-prisoners to hear about what it’s really like.

One of the things Ahmad remembers most vividly from his time at Gohardasht Prison in Iran is a room known as the ‘basement’. He spent a month there for so-called “interrogation” purposes, which in reality, meant weeks of “unimaginable” torture.

“They did everything they could to break me - both physically and mentally,” he told NationalWorld. “Beatings, lashings, canings… there was no form of punishment they wouldn’t try.”

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Ahmad was arrested in November 1981, for suspected involvement in the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran - which opposed the country’s harsh and brutal regime. The moment of his arrest is generally a blur, but he remembers that his casual stroll with a friend came to an abrupt end when a gun was pointed at his head, and a man said: “Don’t move, or I’ll kill you.”

He was blindfolded and bundled into a van, and the next thing he knew, he was in prison. “In some ways, I had been anticipating it,” Ahmad said. “The regime had banned all political groups - so hundreds were getting executed every day, and hundreds more were getting arrested.

“The culture of terror - it’s almost impossible to explain. You were at risk even if you were merely suspected of resistance to the regime.”

Thousands of Iranians have been imprisoned over the last six months of protests in Iran. NationalWorld spoke to ex-prisoners to hear about what it’s really like. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorldThousands of Iranians have been imprisoned over the last six months of protests in Iran. NationalWorld spoke to ex-prisoners to hear about what it’s really like. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld
Thousands of Iranians have been imprisoned over the last six months of protests in Iran. NationalWorld spoke to ex-prisoners to hear about what it’s really like. Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld | Kim Mogg / NationalWorld

‘The abuse was constant’

After a month of torture in the ‘basement’, with the prison guards trying to extract information from Ahmad, he was taken blindfolded to a court in Iran for a supposed criminal “trial”. “This lasted less than two minutes,” Ahmad recalled. He was also not allowed access to a lawyer.

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The judge initially sentenced him to execution, but the ruling was suspended as the court could not find proof of physical involvement in political action. It could only prove he was supportive.

Ahmad had to wait until 1984 for his sentence to be reconsidered, during which time he did not know what exactly he had been convicted of - or how long he would be in prison. When a trial was eventually re-arranged, three years after his initial arrest, he was sentenced to a further seven years.

“It was terrifying,” Ahmad said of Gohardasht Prison, which is generally regarded as one of Iran’s most horrific prisons - with reports of torture, rape and murder. “The abuse was constant. Even when you weren’t being tortured, the prison guards were always trying to get to you.”

Ahmad spent much of his time in prison in solitary confinement - in a two by one metre room. He also became severely malnourished, and was generally in poor health.

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He was ultimately released from prison in 1991 - and escaped Iran in 1999. He now lives in London with his wife and his son.

Protests in Iran and across the world broke out after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran's 'morality police' (Picture: Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images)Protests in Iran and across the world broke out after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran's 'morality police' (Picture: Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images)
Protests in Iran and across the world broke out after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Iran's 'morality police' (Picture: Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images)

‘The suffering continues long after you leave prison’

Zahra was also arrested in 1981 for suspected resistance to the regime - at the age of just 23. Police broke into her home in the middle of the night, snatching her, her husband, and their three-year-old daughter from their beds.

During Zahra’s first couple months in prison, her daughter was with her in her cell. She was ultimately removed, but only after Zahra’s parents fought “fiercely” for custody.

Several years later, Zahra finds speaking about her experience excruciating. “I was tortured very badly,” she said. “It was constant suffering.”

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She lost hearing in one of her ears from the relentless beatings, but for her, the “emotional wounds” are worse. “The suffering continues long after you leave prison,” she explained.

When Zahra was released after four years, her husband - who had been sentenced to 10 - was still imprisoned. But the regime changed its mind and executed him after seven.

“I tried to build a new life for myself and my daughter, but I couldn’t stay in Iran,” she said. “I spent every day fearful that the same thing would happen again. And I couldn’t accept living under this kind of regime.”

Zahra escaped Iran and hasn’t been home for 20 years. Because of this, she did not get to be by her parents’ sides when they died. “I know I would have been immediately arrested if I returned,” Zahra said, “but it still hurts. Things are still being taken from me.”

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‘Because of my experience, I am so fearful for the protesters being arrested’

Protests in Iran erupted just over six months ago, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely. She died in police custody - with many of the belief that she was killed by the regime.

Iranians have been demonstrating their resistance to the regime - but Iran’s ‘morality police’ has been vehemently cracking down on protesters. There have been four state executions, hundreds have died, and thousands have been arrested.

Zahra told NationalWorld: “I am so fearful for those being imprisoned as a result of these protests. I am especially concerned for the young girls - because, well, I know what can happen to them.” There have been many reports of women being raped whilst in prison.

Ahmad echoed her thoughts: “I know how much people are suffering, because I know what happened to me. I was there.” One of his concerns is that these protests will be hijacked by a new regime, as they were when he was protesting in the 1980s. “They are saying death to the dictator, which is exactly what we said,” he explained.

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But he’s hopeful that increased media attention on the protests this time round may make a difference. “The media didn’t report on it as much before, but people’s voices are more heard nowadays,” he remarked. “Iranians could finally achieve freedom and democracy. This has to be the end of the suffering. It has to work this time.”

Zahra has faith as well. “When my husband was executed, there was no reporting. But people are listening, and that’s all we want - for people to hear about what is happening.

“Iranians want freedom. They want an end to executions, to unfair and endless imprisonment. People are listening and people are reporting. So I hope things will change. It really could happen. And I believe it.”

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