A trial about alleged torture may soon be underway in Iran — but the government won’t be the one held to account. Instead, officials could be bringing a case against Esmail Bakhshi, a labor rights leader who claims he was tortured while in prison. If the case goes ahead, the victim of torture —Bakhshi — will be the defendant, not the claimant.
The administration of Hassan Rouhani has signaled that it might sue Bakhshi for what it calls false claims of torture. Bakhshi is known for taking a leading role in strike action by sugarcane workers for the Haft-Tappeh agribusiness in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province. Mahmoud Vaezi, Rouhani’s chief of staff, told reporters on January 9 that investigations carried out by the Ministry of Intelligence had shown Bakhshi’s claim to be “false and for propaganda purposes” and added: “The Ministry of Intelligence reserves the right to sue Bakhshi.”
Vaezi’s comments came after Bakhshi posted on Instagram on January 4 that he had been tortured while in custody, confirming widespread allegations of the crime. It also followed Bakhshi’s public challenge to the Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi.
Esmail Bakhshi was arrested on November 18 in the city of Shush and spent 25 days in jail before he was released on bail on December 12. He then called on Alavi to take part in a televised debate, challenging him on two points: Why was he tortured and why did the torturers admit to listening to his phone conversations?“ Without any reason, they tortured me to death and beat me up,” Bakhshi wrote. “For 72 hours, I couldn’t even move in my cell. Two months have passed. I still feel pain in my broken ribs, my kidneys, my left ear and my testicles.”
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry agents bear the lofty nickname “Unknown Soldiers of the Imam of the Time,” a reference to a 9th-century descendant of the Prophet Mohammad who, according to Shia beliefs, has gone into “occultation” and will come back at the end of time. In his challenge to Alavi, which was presented to a letter addressed to him, Bakhshi wants to know: how is it that agents who are called by such holy names can “use all sorts of dirty sexual swearwords” against him and Sepideh Ghaliani, a social activist who says she witnessed Bakhshi being tortured and is prepared to testify in court? "Is torture in line with ethics, human rights and “especially the religion of Islam?” Bakhshi demanded to know.
Bakhshi’s lawyer Farzane Zilabi confirmed the allegation and said when the labor leader met with his family on December 2, there were signs of mental distress and physical abuse.
Bakhshi’s testimony reverberated across Iranian civil society. Torture is illegal under Iranian law, even though the Islamic Republic is one of the very few countries to have not signed the UN Convention against Torture. And of course many questioned why a labor leader should have to go through torture at all. The Rouhani administration, the judiciary and the Iranian parliament’s Hope Faction (which supports Rouhani) have all promised to conduct their own investigations and dispatched teams to Khuzestan.
The Ministry of Intelligence is not the only source of power to deny the Bakhshi’s claims. Heshmatollah Felahatpisheh, the head of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on January 8: “There was no torture but there had been a clash between Bakhshi and the agents when he was being transferred to prison.” It’s a curious claim, and echoes comments made by Saudi authorities about Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who is widely believed to have been killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Felahatpisheh also claimed that Bakhshi had confessed to links to the Worker-Communist Party of Iran (WPI) based outside the country, a claim that was strenuously denied by the party. Asqar Karimi, the WPI’s head of the executive committee, told Radio Farda that Bakhshi was not a member of the party and had no links to it.
On social media, people attacked the Rouhani administration for making a mockery of justice. One poignant point came from Mohammad Javad Akbarin, a Paris-based journalist and religious scholar. He compared the way the Rouhani administration treated Bakhshi to the way in which the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had treated people who disputed the country’s 2009 presidential election.
“The case of the accuser was given to the accused (the Intelligence Ministry) for review,” Akbarin wrote on Twitter, “and now the accused wants something back too, and the president’s office says it will sue the claimant. This is what systematic corruption looks like!”
As the strike action by Iranian workers continues to rock the Islamic Republic, Iran’s claims to be a true defender of “the oppressed” rings ever more hollow than before.