The shocking story of Niloufar Bayani, an Iranian conservationist currently held in prison along with seven other environmental activists, has once again shed light on the use of sexual torture in Iran’s prisons. In her narrative about her ordeal, which was published on February 18 by BBC Persian, Bayani described the ways in which the security agency of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (the IRGC) had sexually harassed and threatened her during “at least 1200 hours of interrogations” to extract fabricated confessions.
Niloufar Bayani is one of eight defendants in what has become known as the “environmentalists’ case.” The eight have been detained since February 2018 on baseless espionage charges. On February 18, 2020, the Court of Appeals sentenced them to long prison terms, and Bayani was given 10 years for “collaboration with the hostile government of the US.”
In the past, many women have reportedly been subjected to sexual threats and harassment in Iranian prisons. However, only a small fraction of them have dared to speak out and reveal what they have experienced.
Despite the fact that the defendants have been in prison for two years, it was only after Niloufar Bayani’s recent disclosure that the lawyer of another female environmentalist prisoner, Sepideh Kashani, announced that her client had also been subjected to similar treatment.
Torture involving sexual threats has been a relatively common practice in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the last two or three decades, sexual threats have been used to force prisoners to confess to whatever their interrogators desire. This practice has been particularly commonplace with regards to the prisoners of so-called national security cases.
In some cases, the prisoners have even been tortured to confess to sexually immoral behavior. For instance, after the “chain murders” of Iranian dissidents in 1998, which prompted an unprecedented reaction from the press and the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, a number of security agents, as well as the wife of a former intelligence official, Saeed Emami, were arrested and tortured to confess to having committed the murders in coordination with foreign agencies. During the brutal interrogation of Emami’s wife, videos of which were later leaked to the media, the agents flogged the prisoner to force her to falsely confess to widespread sexual corruption, including incest.
In addition to the cases where female prisoners have been systematically harassed in order to get them to confess, there are also reports of sexual assaults on detainees in situations where the agents do not necessarily want to extract false confessions. For instance, after the November 2019 protests in Iran, various cases of sexual misconduct against arrested protesters were reported, including detainees being inappropriately touched. In a January 25, 2020 report, Amnesty International announced it had received shocking information about severe sexual violence against at least one woman arbitrarily arrested by plainclothes security agents and detained for several hours in a police station.
After the 2009 street protests, too, there had been numerous reports about sexual assaults of detainees by plainclothes agents, which included rape.
Despite the Iranian authorities’ official denial of sexual misconduct on behalf of state agents, they have never properly investigated the reported cases. On the other hand, those who reveal such information have always been prosecuted and threatened by the judiciary and the security forces.
Sexual Torture of Male Detainees
The use of sexual torture or intimidation is not limited to female prisoners; male detainees are subject to such treatment as well.
For instance, during the 2009 protests, a number of young men who had been arrested reported that they had been sexually harassed and even raped by members of plainclothes forces that had been in charge of crushing, arresting and frightening the demonstrators.
A more common measure that has repeatedly been used against male dissidents, especially young men, is to lock them up among dangerous criminals who might sexually assault them (the measure has been used against female prisoners, too). This treatment is sometimes linked to the insufficient capacity of Iranian prisons, and it can be difficult to keep political and so-called national security detainees in separate prison yards. For instance, during the mass arrest of street protesters in 2009, 2017 and 2019, hundreds of newly arrested people were transferred into dangerous detention centers, where a number of them were sexually assaulted by imprisoned thugs.
Nevertheless, in many cases, political dissidents have been deliberately imprisoned in such dangerous places. Many Iranian activists and journalists report they have been clearly threatened with the prospect of being locked up among dangerous criminals and sex offenders. A number of dissidents have even reported that, during their jail sentence, security agents explicitly warned them that if they did not confess to whatever the interrogators want, they would be raped by thugs in prison.
While a proportion of such warnings have been the interrogators bluffing in order to frighten the prisoners, it has not necessarily always been the case. In fact, many imprisoned dissidents have reportedly been locked up alongside dangerous criminals and been sexually assaulted.
Some of these prisoners say they have reported specific cases of sexual harassments and assaults to the revolutionary court judges, but the judges have taken no action to help them.
Sexual Torture Under Khomeini
Sexual misconduct against political prisoners was also commonplace under the former Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. However, the methods of this misconduct were rather different from those that have been used during Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s era.
During Khomeini’s era, locking up political prisoners alongside sexual criminals or dangerous criminals was not used as a method to make prisoners confess. In addition, putting pressure on political prisoners to extract false confessions regarding sexual corruption was not commonplace during Khomeini’s era (the interrogators usually exercised torture to force the prisoners to “repent” and become the regime’s collaborators, rather than to make false confessions).
On the other hand, under Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule, Iran’s detention centers witnessed one of the most horrific episodes of sexual criminality in Iran’s modern history. Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a high-ranking Grand Ayatollah, first revealed this practice in a letter to the former Iranian Leader in October 1986, in which he severely criticized the prison guards for raping young female prisoners.
In those years, a large number of young women, mainly members of militant opposition groups, were sentenced to death and executed. Ayatollah Montazeri, in order to prevent the executions, told judicial authorities that in Islam, it is forbidden to execute young (virgin) girls. In response, the judicial authorities, instead of stopping such executions, decided that the virginity of the girls who were sentenced to death must be removed so that virgin girls were no longer executed.
This decision led to numerous young detainees being forced to enter into “temporary marriages” with prison guards and agents. These so-called marriages resulted in sexual intercourse without consent — in other words, rape.
Long-Lasting Immunity for Criminals
The forms of sexual threats and assaults against Iranian prisoners have changed over the course of time. However, one crucial aspect has always remained unchanged, and that is the immunity of the interrogators regarding the sexual crimes they commit in prisons.
So far, a considerable number of Iranian prisoners and former prisoners have tried to lodge legal complaints against their torturers or those security and judicial authorities who have been responsible for the interrogators’ cruel behavior. But none of these interrogators or their superiors have stood trial before a court of justice.
To have a better understanding of the extent of their immunity, it is useful to refer to the case of Mazyar Ebrahimi and more than 100 other individuals who, after a group of Iranian scientists and technicians were assassinated between 2010 and 2012, were arrested by the Ministry of Intelligence and forced to confess that they had been involved in these terrorist acts. Among the defendants, 12 detainees appeared on Iran’s state-run TV to explain how they had committed the assassinations in cooperation with Israeli agents. However, due to internal infighting within the Islamic Republic intelligence community, it was proven in an official capacity that all the detainees were innocent and that they had played no role in the assassinations.
After their release from prison, Mazyar Ebrahimi and other former defendants in the case filed lawsuits against their torturers. But their efforts brought about absolutely no results, even though the judiciary acknowledged that the interrogators had tortured their detainees to make them confess to having assassinated the nuclear scientists and technicians.
The above case is only one of innumerable examples of the longstanding immunity of torturers, including those who sexually harass and assault prisoners, in Iran’s judicial system. There is no doubt that as long as such immunity exists in the Islamic Republic of Iran, torture that deploys sexual harassment, intimidation or assault will continue in prisons, and that interrogators will use such torture to break their prisoners, to make them confess, and to complete the indictments against defendants in cases linked to alleged crimes against national security or cases that are politically-charged.
This is article is part of Decoding Iranian Politics series. Read the other articles in the series