They stand next to each other, smiling at the camera, holding bouquets that they have received as welcome home presents. Behind them is the prison that they have just left — Gharchak in Varamin, near Tehran. Right there in front of Gharchak, they sing a song celebrating gender equality with the group of people who have come to greet them.
The 14 women were arrested for taking part in a protest rally for women’s rights on March 8, International Women’s Day, which was due to take place outside the Ministry of Labor and Welfare. But even before it got underway, police violently dispersed the demonstration and arrested more than 80 people. These 14 were released on the night of March 12.
Various groups of women’s rights activists had called for the rally. The plan was to read a statement of protest against gender inequality and discrimination against women, especially in the job market, and against the violations of their social and human rights. But this never happened because the police responded with force and violence even before the statement could be read out.
The majority of the protesters were released that night or the next day, but 14 women and five men were charged and detained. The women were sent to Gharchak and the men to the Greater Tehran Detention Center, known as Fashafuyeh Prison. Although the detained women have been released, the five men are still in custody.
“Plainclothes officers riding motorbikes attacked the rally and started beating up the men,” one of the released women IranWire. “Then they arrested people and put them in a van.”
She described in more detail what they went through. “I don’t know why they detained us,” she said. “First they took us to the police station at Gisha street and then to the station at Vozara Avenue. Some people were released there and then and some were released the day after. But on Friday [March 9], they took us to Evin Courthouse. There they read us our charges and afterward they transferred us to Gharchak.”
According to her, during the three days that they spent at Gharchak, they were not given enough water to drink and were kept in unhygienic conditions. “The water in Gharchak Prison is not fit for drinking,” she said. “To buy [bottled] water we needed a prison card, but the card takes a week to be issued. We were in need of clean underwear but, again, we could not buy any because we did not have cards.”
Inmates not Treated as Human Beings
She went on to describe Gharchak Prison as a place where no inmate is treated as a human being. “The smallest and the most ordinary requests by the inmates are answered with insults and humiliation,” she said. “The prisoners have very basic facilities. The most painful of all are the conditions at the mothers’ ward at the prison. The children who are born in prison and live in prison have nothing in the way of care, education or play. After seeing conditions in this prison, we will not be able to go on with our lives as we did before.”
Gharchak has been singled out for appalling conditions before. The 10-ward prison, which is officially called Rey Shahr Women’s Penitentiary, is located in a desert on the outskirts of east Tehran. The media have reported about the pitiful conditions of the inmates in this prison for years. In December 2016, the Iranian Student’s News Agency (ISNA) reported that 800 women were jailed at Gharchak Prison [Persian link]. Painting a bleak picture of the situation there, the report added that 300 of the women had yet to be tried and many of them did not know the status of their cases. But nothing has improved.
One Tehran-based lawyer told IranWire that authorities violated the law when they transferred the arrested protesters to the communal ward at Gharchak Prison. “The detainees were charged with ‘action against national security by participating in an illegal gathering,” said the lawyer. “This is a political charge.. If they were charged with crimes against morality, like the charge of ‘promoting prostitution’ that was levelled against ‘Revolution Women,’ then they could have transferred them to Gharchak Prison, but transferring those with political charges to the communal ward of Gharchak is completely illegal.”
The lawyer clarified Iran’s laws pertaining to public gatherings. “The arrests should not have happened because participating in assemblies is not a crime in itself,” the lawyer said. “According to Article 27 of the constitution, all assemblies are allowed and no permit is necessary unless it violates the foundations of Islam or the participants carry arms, and neither was true in the case of this gathering.” And yet Tehran’s Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi has challenged this, stating that all rallies need a permit, despite it being spelled out in law.
The detainees had signed their bail papers a day before they were actually released, the lawyer said. “According to the law, they should have been released immediately — but they were released late at night.”
It is reported that the five men who were arrested on March 8 — Ali Salem, Peyman Chehrazi, Mehrdad Ghazi, Ali Afsoongar, and Javad Abbas Tavaloli — remain in custody at Fashafuyeh Prison. A Telegram channel that protest organizers used to call people to the rally on March 8 recently carried reports that the men’s cases were due to be reviewed on Wednesday, March 14 and that the authorities had promised they will be released as soon as possible.
Update: the five men were released on March 17.
More prison stories:
The Misfortune of Prison Children, November 2016
Meals and Showers: Small Consolations in Solitary, November 2016
Do Hunger Strikes Work in Iranian Prisons?, July 2016
My Cellmate the Drug Kingpin, July 2016
How Prison Graffiti Nourishes the Soul, March 2016
Whatever you do, don’t get sick in prison, March 2016
The Daily Life of a Prison Guard, October 2015
More on the fight for gender equality:
Iranian Women Banned from “Freedom” Stadium — Again, September 2017
How Iran's Laws Discriminate Against Women, April 2016
Women and Travel Bans: Can the Laws be Reformed?, November 2015
What have Women MPs Done for Iranian Women?, November 2014