At least three people arrested during Iran’s recent protests have died in custody, according to human rights organizations, with some groups saying up to five people are now reported dead. 

Islamic Republic authorities, however, have only confirmed two deaths — that of Sina Ghanbari in Evin Prison and Vahid Heydari in a jail in the central city of Arak. In both cases, however, officials claim that the arrests were not linked to the recent protests. In the case of Saru Ghahremani, whose family say died in police custody in Sanandaj in Iran’s Kurdistan province, authorities claim they were forced to shoot him after he had threatened a member of the public with a gun and refused to obey police orders. 

“According to a relative, one of the detainees has died in prison,” tweeted the reformist parliamentarian Mahmoud Sadeghi on Tuesday, January 16. “He had told his family in his phone calls [before his death] that prison officials were forcing him and other detainees to take pills that made them feel bad.”

On January 15, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, the First Deputy Chief Justice of Iran, told reporters at a press conference that both Ghanbari and Heydari were addicts and had committed suicide. He claimed there was CCTV footage from Evin Prison to confirm this. 

However, Sadeghi’s tweet about detainees being forced to take pills prompted a response from Justice Minister Alireza Avaee. “We have not received such a report,” he told journalists as he prepared to attend a cabinet meeting. “But we will follow up on it.”

Before this, however, one of Sina Ghanbari’s cellmates had told the Washington DC-based freelance journalist Masih Alinejad that “before committing suicide, Sina was restless. Prison authorities had given him pills that had made him feel distressed.”

A Regular Occurrence?

This is not the first time that prisoners held on charges of endangering national security have claimed they have been forced to take pills in prison. In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, a number of detainees made the same claim. One of them was Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former vice president for parliamentary and legal affairs under Mohammad Khatami, who was sentenced to six years in prison after he was forced to make a videotaped confession that he was guilty of conspiracy. “After spending close to 40 days in solitary confinement he has lost 18kg,” his wife Fahimeh Mousavinejad told Shargh newspaper. “He says they give him pills that make him forget about the world.”

Abtahi himself confirmed the report, albeit indirectly, after his release from prison. “What I said was that they gave us pills, but I do not remember how they affected me,” he told the reformist website Green Movement’s Way in summer 2017. “Perhaps that was my wife’s interpretation of my conditions. To be honest, I do not remember what I said in my first meeting with my wife after 30-some days.”

Around the same time, the mother of the journalist Hengameh Shahidi, who is currently serving a six-year prison sentence, also reported that her daughter had been forced to take pills. “I told Hengameh to resist and not to give testimony against herself,” she told the same website. She said her daughter had told her: “They give me pills that make my mind go blank and I cannot think about anything.”

In 2011, the imprisoned journalist Mehdi Mahmoudian — who played an important role in exposing the atrocities committed at Kahrizak Detention Center following the 2009 presidential election — sent an open letter about prison conditions to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. “At least three detainees in Ward 2A [of Evin Prison, controlled by the Revolutionary Guards] say that they have been given colored pills that made them feel abnormal,” he wrote. “The effects were still visible for a long time after they were transferred to Ward 350 [Evin’s communal ward for political prisoners].”

“Red, White and Blue”

In 2014, BBC Persian published a report about “red, white and blue” pills given to inmates at Ward 350, ostensibly sleeping pills and anti-depressants that suspended them between wakefulness and sleep [Persian link]. An epileptic prisoner quoted in the BBC report said that the prison clinic gave him unbranded anti-depressants instead of medicine for his epilepsy. “The medications that they gave us had nothing to do with our illnesses,” he said. “When we took them we got sleepy and were drowsy for a long time. I was dazed all the time and had nervous attacks every month.”

After Mahmoud Sadeghi’s tweet, Leila Liaghat, the wife of the journalist Alireza Rajaei whose cancer went untreated while he was in prison, tweeted about the complications resulting from the medication administered to her husband while he was detained. “In prison they gave him medication that caused nosebleeds that would not stop,” she posted, “or they forced him to take pills that made him drowsy and confused all the time.”

But long before these accounts, Mohammad Ali Amooee, a former member of the communist Tudeh Party and a political prisoner both under the shah and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, reported that hallucinogens were being used as weapons of torture in Iran’s prisons. “Tortures were a combination of both mental and physical pressures and the use of hallucinogens that eventually made the victim agree to whatever the interrogator suggested,” he told the website Shahrvand in 2004. “Later the interrogators themselves talked about [the drugs]. I do not remember the names but other friends know these drugs and the names of them very well.”

An Organized Project?

But the practice might be even more serious than an occasional administration of hallucinogenic drugs. Rather, it appears that there might be an organized project to present detained protestors as drug addicts whose statements cannot be trusted. “During their phone calls from inside Evin Prison,” the prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on January 17, “a number of detained protesters said that security officials had told them to request methadone when meeting a judiciary official in prison so that their release would be expedited.” [Persian link] Since methadone is an opioid that drug addicts often take to overcome their addiction, the implication is that the judicial authorities would take pity on the prisoners and order their release.

Sotoudeh told IranWire: “When I put together what I have heard from detainees about requesting methadone, what the officials tell mourning families about the addiction of the dead detainees and what Mr. Sadeghi’s tweet says, I become worried that perhaps there is a project to present the protesters as drug addicts and to discredit their demands.”

She insists, however, that even if the detainees are indeed drug addicts, the judiciary is still responsible for their lives when they are under arrest. “Law does not differentiate between addicts and non-addicts,” she says. “Judiciary officials are responsible for the lives of the detainees. What I want to say is that whether these charges are false and there is a project to present them as addicts or whether they are really addicts, it makes no difference to the responsibility of the judiciary.”

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