A month on from being re-arrested, activists Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian are facing pressure to publicly confess to trumped-up crimes, a follow-up to the now discredited previous public admissions.

According to Telegram channel reports for the Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Factory’s Independent Labor Union, pressures against the activists have intensified. The first time they were arrested, Iranian state TV aired their confessions in January 2019.  Both activists retracted their confessions after their release and accused the intelligence ministry of using torture to extract them.

It has also been reported that Bakhshi and Gholian are both suffering from poor health in prison, but Khuzestan’s Intelligence Bureau in Ahvaz, the provincial capital, and the prosecutor of the city of Dezful refuse to provide them with the medical services they need in an effort to step up pressure on them. IranWire has seen reports that indicate that efforts to extract confessions from these two activists are extensive and are being pursued vigorously, and include the transfer of Amir Amirgholi, another imprisoned activist, from Tehran to Ahvaz. He is a member of the editorial board of the pro-labor publication Gam, which has published news about the protests by and grievances of Haft-Tappeh workers.

According the union’s Telegram channel, authorities have transferred Amir Amirgholi to Ahvaz in a bid to force him to confess, which they then plan to include in the second episode of a so-called “documentary” series about forced confessions. “Amir Amirgholi, who had been arrested because of [his] writing in support of Haft-Tappeh workers, was transferred to the detention center of Ahvaz Intelligence Bureau and has been tortured to confess in front of the camera,” the Telegram channel report said. 

A family member of one of the arrested activists told IranWire that Bakhshi, a labor activist, and civil society activist Gholian are under intense pressure to work with the Intelligence Ministry and give confessions. “Each time that the arrests and the torture returns to the top of the news, intelligence ministry agents go to the families and try to silence them so that, as they say, they can ‘solve the problem in peace,’” the source told us. “We know that, as of now, they have not succeeded in extracting confessions from them and this worries us because it means that they are going to hurt Esmail and Sepideh even more. They say that [the detainees] have been ‘deceived’ and if they cooperate they will solve ‘their problem.’ What they mean by ‘cooperate’ is that they must lie about themselves and their lawful and peaceful activities.”

 

A “Natural” Setting for Confessions

This attempt to silence the families and friends of imprisoned activists is a routine tactic used by Islamic Republic officials. According to the source close to the family, when Sepideh Gholian’s family publicly declared its solidarity with the family of Esmail Bakhshi by joining in their hunger strike, “the Intelligence Bureau frantically called the family and told them: ‘come here; we must talk to you.’ The agent told Sepideh’s parents to keep calm. ‘We are not at fault. They created this headache for themselves, for us and for you. Why did they lie about torture? Now don’t go around shouting about it. Let us see what we can do.’ They [the authorities] are afraid of the solidarity between the families. They want to silence us with lies.”

The union report on Telegram says that the new campaign to extract confessions intends to provide a more “natural” setting for the confessions. “They noticed that the public was disgusted by the first video of forced confessions and that they had missed what they were aiming for,” it reads. “This time they want to sit the detainees in front of the cameras in a ‘prettier’ setting, looking better and cleaner so as to convince the public that they have not been under torture but are confessing willingly.”

 

A Foreign Plot

A Haft-Tappeh labor activist says that the new campaign against activists is a comprehensive and far-reaching one. It appears that this time, the intelligence ministry, having learned its lesson from the previous confession “documentary,” wants to present the full range of activities of the Haft-Tappeh workers as part of a foreign plot to destabilize Iran.

A number of IranWire sources inside prison confirmed this. “They have gone to some imprisoned workers in Tehran and Alborz provinces to have them talk about a well-known labor activist in front of the camera,” one told us. “They want to have more confessions against him and then, by connecting him to Haft-Tappeh, make it appear that a frightening big network is at work, that they are all connected and that they take their cues from outside [the country].”

In response to these reports about fresh efforts to force new confessions, an update on the Haft-Tappeh labor union Telegram channel has said that the workers consider such scenarios to be absolutely without merit — even before anything is broadcast: “We, the workers of Haft-Tappeh, condemn the efforts of the intelligence ministry to extract forced confessions and consider it to be a continuation of the policy of suppressing workers and their supporters. Any video of forced confessions that might be broadcast in the future will be worthless and will lead to, and only to, more anger and hate by the workers and among public opinion.”

The channel also called on workers and the public to stand up to efforts to extract confessions or to force Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian to write letters of repentance. Through Telegram, the Haft-Tappeh workers' movement warned that if the two activists are not released, the workers will resume their protests and file a complaint with the International Labor Organization and the United Nations.

 

A TV Series?

Haft-Tappeh labor activists do not believe that new forced confessions will persuade the public that the accusations against the activists are true. “Even if they make the video of forced confessions into a TV series and broadcast it every week, they will only add to their own problems and intensify our anger and hatred,” the Telegram channel post read. “The problem is somewhere else. Privatization is our problem. We declare our support for all the detainees and condemn any video of forced confessions.”

The source IranWire spoke to said that as far as the families know, so far the security establishment has not succeeded in forcing Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian to confess in front of the camera. “Of course, intelligence agents are putting as much pressure as they can, not only on these two, but also on labor activists in other prisons. These things must be reported by the media so that the intelligence guys will understand that it is condemned even before it happens. We have no idea how long Esmail and Sepideh will be able to resist torture and pressure. But no matter what happens, we know that our loved ones should be proud of themselves.”

The same source said that whenever the media pressure has reached a certain level, authorities have allowed the two to contact their families, and this has given the families hope. They also hope that the two will be released next week — at that point it will be obvious that the campaign to force further confessions has failed. 

“The lawyer has said that their detention has been renewed for another month but this not necessarily correct,” the source said. “At least we are not sure that it is correct. The Intelligence Bureau is trying hard to force them into giving confessions in the coming days. They have told the families to stay silent and not talk to the media. Perhaps, if they fail, they will release Esmail and Sepideh next week. We are very hopeful. Of course, I must add that they have told the families more than once that they want to transfer Esmail and Sepideh to Tehran.”

Considering that the lawyers for Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian have not been allowed to see their case files, and that in the two meetings they held with their families they have not been allowed to talk about anything substantial, it is not clear how much progress has been made in the intelligence ministry’s new targeted public confessions campaign and the tactic to make the Haft-Tappeh labor protests a matter of national security. And, considering the public’s mistrust of the videos of forced confessions, it is also not clear in what ways the ministry will continue its policies to suppress labor activism.

 

Related Coverage:

More Threats Against the Mother of Imprisoned Labor Activist, February 19, 2019

Authorities Threaten Labor Activists, Families and Lawyers Following Media Interviews, February 13, 2019

Intelligence Ministry Takes Revenge on Labor Activist, February 4, 2019

Torture of Arrested Labor Activists and Their Families Continues, February 1, 2019

Agents Target Jailed Activist's Family in Brutal Attack, January 23, 2019

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

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