Few doubted Esmail Bakhshi, a leader of striking sugarcane workers in southwestern Iran, when, earlier this month, he publicly said he was tortured for leading the industrial action. Workers at the Haft-Tapeh agribusiness in Khuzestan province began their strike in December. (The situation has since stabilized after the Revolutionary Guards took over the business.) And now the authorities, after denying Bakhshi’s claims of torture, have made everyone even more certain that he was telling the truth.
On January 19, Iran’s state TV broadcast a 19-minute "documentary" that included footage of confessions by Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian, a student activist who was recently jailed for supporting the striking workers. The confessions were clearly forced. Bakhshi and Gholian were previously released on bail; but shortly after the TV report aired, they were arrested again and now remain in jail.
The video, made by Iranian TV’s Amene Sadat Zabihpoor, rehashes familiar conspiracies to frame Bakhshi and Gholian within a larger plot. In this conspiracy, the administrations of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu worked with nefarious organizations like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) to drive economic protests and to replace the Islamic Republic with anti-regime factions. The conspirators then, according to the video, used foreign media to elevate the voices of protesters such as truck drivers, teachers, steelworkers and finally the sugarcane workers led by Bakshi.
The report showed footage of Bakhshi confessing to links with Marxists abroad – who allegedly taught him to invent popular strike slogans such as “Bread, Labor, Freedom / Power to the Councils!” The report also claimed that the Haft-Tapeh strike was close to a peaceful resolution when Bakhshi and others fanned the flames of more action on orders from “Marxist organizations” outside Iran.
Bakhshi was also shown confessing to links with left-wing student papers in Tehran who had “anti-regime beliefs” and who apparently “wanted to use my name for their publications”. Government interrogators use this tactic to implicate sympathizers and allies of the labor movement among student activities. Iranian universities remain hotbeds of oppositional activity.
One such ally is Sepide Gholian. A university student in Ahvaz, the provincial center of Khuzestan, Gholian was among those who joined the Haft-Tapeh strikers to show their support and to publicize the workers’ cause. In the TV report, she is shown confessing to being a “communist and a Marxist” who forged links between Haft-Tapeh and left-wing groups.
The allegations and conspiratorial paranoia of the news package are ludicrous to anyone who follows Iran. In an economy where most people feel some pain, the charge that labor protests are the work of outside agitators and foreign left-wing groups are laughable. The report also contains obvious fabrications. A picture of Bakshi, Gholian and others meeting in a cafe is published under the caption of “an organizational meeting in Tehran.” But social media users quickly pointed out that the picture was taken at Saar Cafe, a popular hangout in Dezful, Khuzestan, miles away from the capital.
The video also tries to deny Bakhshi’s torture claims. His hand-written confession to the authorities, given when his was released on bail, says that he was treated with “respect.” And one official after another – from both the hardline judiciary and the reform-oriented Rouhani administration – appears to say that Bakhshi was lying about being tortured.
State TV’s broadcast of this ‘documentary’ has offended many Iranians – and not just the usual suspects of dissenters and activists. Crucially, this wasn’t just another middle-class activist but a popular leader of a working-class struggle widely seen as a just cause. Iranians in their own dire economic circumstances were outraged to see that a worker protesting unpaid wages and re-nationalization was met with such a brutal response.
But this time the labor activists had outsmarted their interrogators. Before being re-arrested, Sepideh Gholian recorded a 10-minute video explaining what happened to her in prison. After her arrest, this video was shown on BBC Persian and quickly went viral. Gholian explains that she was a student activist working as a freelance journalist to cover the strike and denies all allegations of having foreign political connections. She adds that she was first arrested on November 18, when she was on a bus with Haft-Tapeh workers travelling to meet officials at a local government office. Bakhshi and another worker volunteered to be arrested with her – after which all three were insulted by the agents and severely beaten.
Gholian also details the torture she and Bakhshi endured – and explains that they were forced to give false confessions against themselves which were filmed. They were beaten with batons and tasers and forced to insult themselves. Gholian and Bakhshi were also held with suspected ISIS members and Gholian says one of these ISIS suspects threatened to rape her. “We consider you more dangerous than ISIS,” Gholian says the authorities told her.
Gholian also notes, in her video, that the left-wing books found in her apartment (all of which were legally published in Iran) were taken as a sign of her Marxist allegiances. To which she says, “Has the Iranian constitution banned being a communist?”
The clip ends with a dramatic plea from Gholian: “I don’t know where I will be when this is published but all I want to say is that I want an open court with media presence. If they have any evidence, they should bring it and show what it is that I did.”
The authorities may have misplayed their hand. Bakhshi and Gholian are both highly sympathetic. One is a leader of workers fighting under tough conditions. The other is a 24-year-old student whose crime was caring too much for an oft-forgotten cause. In the clip published by the BBC, she looks very different from the all-black veiling with which she was shown on state TV. Sporting a red scarf and an informal blouse, her blue-dyed hair (which, she says, was insulted by her interrogators) pokes out from under her scarf. Gholian looks in every way like the antithesis of the autocrats in Tehran.
Both Bakhshi and Gholian have gathered high-profile supporters across Iran. Mahnaz Afshar, a leading actress, tweeted a poem in support of them which received more than 5,000 reactions. Another user paraphrased a famous saying by Ayatollah Khomeini about a war martyr – to say that “the true leader” of the Iranian people was “the girl with the blue hair.”
Iranian TV’s ‘documentary’ was subtitled “A Shot That Missed.” Ironically, it seems that it is Iran’s ruling elite that has missed a shot once again – as Bakhshi and Gholian have been made famous and popular through their ordeal.
Iranian TV Airs Forced Confessions of Labor Activists, January 23, 2019
Rouhani Government to Sue Labor Leader for Torture Claims, January 9, 2019
Activist Challenges Intelligence Minister to TV Debate, January 4, 2019
Labor Protests and Arrests Continue, December 12, 2018
Crackdown on University Students for Supporting Striking Workers, December 10, 2018
Sugar Refinery Workers Face New Round of Harassment, December 5, 2018
Pro-Labor Student Protest Ends in Violence, December 5, 2018
Striking Steel Workers Tell Rouhani: "We Have Had it!", December 3, 2018
Arrest and Torture of Protesting Workers, November 29, 2018
The Rise and Fall of Haft-Tappeh Sugar Factory, November 22, 2018
The Plight of Iran’s Unpaid Workers, April 10, 2018