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In Iran, the Point of Torture Is to ‘Break the Human Soul’


Iran 2009 Election Protests
Supporters of the main opposition presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, at an election rally in Tehran, Iran, on June 9, 2009. Mousavi lost, despite strong public support amid deadly government retaliation. Iranians face another presidential election on June 14, 2013 and crackdowns on activists, rights groups say, has already begun. BEN CURTIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Iran has remained prominent on the radar screen of the United Nations Human Rights Council and other international human-rights groups that are concerned with the poor treatment of Iranians who dare to speak out against repression and corrupt laws. Human-rights groups are waiting to see if similar abuses will increase before the presidential election on June 14, 2013. The current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is barred from running for another term, though media reports say he has designated a successor.

Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, emphasized recently to the council in Geneva that the country operates a system of “widespread and systemic” torture and a policy of harassment, arrests and attacks against human-rights activists. Shaheed emphasized in a report to the council that women often bear the brunt of abuse and discrimination in Iran.

The mandate of Shaheed, who is a former foreign minister for the Maldives, was overwhelmingly extended by vote for another year by the council in March, and his position is unpaid. Although the council has no legal authority, its counterweight in Iran and other countries is its moral authority and use of old-fashioned peer pressure.

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Documentation of victims’ stories is part of that approach. As the fallout from widespread protests after the presidential election in 2009, known as the Green Revolution, continues to haunt people in and outside Iran, who still want to be heard. More than 400 Iranian exiles let Shaheed record the harm they suffered by authorities, in particular, on the streets of Tehran during the demonstrations after the vote, which many in Iran and beyond say was rigged.

The Iranian government, which is a member of the Human Rights Council, has barred Shaheed from the country repeatedly since 2011, contending that he is a spy for the West. Yet Shaheed has attracted a large number of former Iranian residents now living mostly in Europe to report cases of abuse to him. Additionally, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran says that the government conducts annual sweeps of activists and bloggers who campaign against repression. Many of the people who are arrested are beaten or executed, action that may increase as the election nears.

Shaheed’s report lays out women’s restrictions countrywide. “Iran has prohibited women’s access to a number of fields of study, further restricted women’s freedom of movement; and current policies that continue to impede women’s ability to hold certain decision-making positions in government remain problematic.”

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Ahmed Shaheed
Ahmed Shaheed, the UN's special investigator on human rights in Iran.

People who defend the rights of women, children and minorities, he added, continue to be subjected to harassment, arrest and interrogation and are “frequently charged with vaguely defined national security crimes, which is seemingly meant to erode the front line of human rights defense in the country.”

Iranian women are subjected to discriminatory laws that impose severe punishments for wives who are accused of committing adultery, limit the possibility of divorce and automatically grant custody to the father in such cases. Several universities have also banned female enrollment. Shaheed’s report underscores severe restrictions on the freedom of speech, a continued crackdown on human-rights defenders and activists, a high number of executions (topping the list worldwide) and torture of political prisoners and same-sex couples.

Marina Nemat knows about that treatment firsthand. As an Iranian author, activist and former political prisoner who lives in Canada, she detailed at a recent summit on human rights and democracy held in Geneva the history of torture in her country since the Islamic revolution in 1979, saying, “The point of torture is to break the human soul.”

Her books, “Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir” and “After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed,” document Nemat’s imprisonment and release in 1984. During an interview via Skype, Nemat, who was born in 1965, said that her family practiced Christianity and was not political.

“We were not concerned with the internal political arguments of the Muslim groups,” she said. “We had personal freedoms, and I went to a wonderful school for girls. Women at that time during the 1960s and 1970s could be anything they wanted. Even the prime minister. I had very high hopes.”

During the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, in the early 1980s, Nemat said, “We didn’t gain any political freedoms” that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini promised. “We also lost our personal freedoms. As early as 1981, there were thousands of teenage political prisoners inside prisons. At the beginning they attacked us with baseball bats, then tear gas, then live bullets.”

Marina Nemat
Marina Nemat, an Iranian who has written books on her imprisonment in her country. She now lives and teaches in Canada.

When she was 16 years old, Nemat was arrested at a demonstration against the government. “They took me into a small room in Evin prison,” she said. “Two men tried to handcuff me and realized my wrists were too small so they put both of my wrists together into one cuff and as it clicked I heard my right wrist crack. They tied me to the bed and they struck me on the soles of feet so many times with a cable wire that my feet looked like balloons with toes on them.”

Nemat said she saw many girls leave the cell block and return the next morning, having been apparently raped overnight. “I was called to the interrogation room six months after my arrest. My interrogator, Ali, looked me straight in the eye. He said, ‘Listen to me carefully, you will be here forever and the world does not give a damn.’ And it was true.”

She was forced to marry Ali and to convert to Islam while in prison. She said he raped her repeatedly in a solitary confinement cell. And, Nemat added, “The women never spoke to each other about the rapes.”

Nemat remained for two years in the prison, and Ali was assassinated there a year after they were married. “How could a country that has this system ever have a system that upholds justice and democracy?” she said. “I carry the memories of every single girl who stood in bathroom lines in Evin prison with me. Many of them are buried. I am the lucky one.”

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The Recipe for a Better World? Ending Violence Against Women and Girls

New Human Rights Council Members, Some Already Sullied

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Tala Dowlatshahi is based in Zurich, where she runs the communities team for the International Relations and Security Network, an online information-services project. She formerly worked as the United Nations bureau chief for Talk Radio News Service. Since 2002, Dowlatshahi has also worked as a US representative for Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontieres), the Paris-based media watchdog group. Dowlatshahi has reported from Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Turkey, South Africa and Uganda. Her work has been featured on CNN International, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, Reuters and in humanitarian news programs. She is member of New York Women in Film and Television and the Overseas Press Club of America as well as a recipient of the 2011 Visual Artists Guild champion for the right of freedom of speech and expression award. She as a B.A. in mass communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in international development from New York University.

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