"Disabling activists” is a term Taghi Rahmani, the husband of human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, used several years ago when describing what authorities had done to his wife. Mohammadi was placed in solitary confinement, despite having a serious illness that causes seizures, and repeatedly interrogated. The prison guard made no effort to find out what her medical needs were, and instead injected her with a range of drugs without either of them being aware of what they were.
Other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, including journalists and activists, have also been subject to this type of treatment. The latest is Behnam Mahjoubi, a dervish imprisoned in Evin Prison. Mahjoubi was sent to prison despite a doctor's order stating that he was not physically fit enough to withstand prison conditions. He was denied proper medical treatment, not given his medication on time, and forced to take sleeping pills for a month. He was then sent to Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital. This is a common form of punishment meted out to political prisoners, and part of the project of disabling prisoners to which Rahmani refers.
On the eighth day of Narges Mohammadi's arrest, after repeated interrogations and being kept in solitary confinement, she lost control of her arms and legs. Prison authorities planned to take her to a hospital, but she was unable to stand on her feet and fell to the ground when she tried. She said she felt as if she was paralyzed and at one point she fell down the stairs. Prison staff covered her with a blanket and took her to the hospital. That night, she was given injections and sleeping pills. "I felt there were no bones or nerves in my legs,” she writes in her open letter about the experience, entitled White Torture. “I was afraid. It was not the fear of death, it was not even the fear of contracting a disease. The fear of the unknown was all that came to me in that ward and in those silent and abandoned cells."
That night, the female prison guard refused to give her an injection, stating: "I do not take responsibility." A nurse was called, and she administered an injection of a drug with which Mohammadi was not familiar. The doctor appeared and said: "Ms. Mohammadi, die, but do it out of prison. Go to hell, but do not leave the cost on the system, like Zahra Kazemi [an Iranian-Canadian photographer who died in custody in 2003 and whose case met with international condemnation].”
Narges Mohammadi's doctor outside the prison had written that she should not be held in a confined, closed, sedentary and airless environment. And yet she was kept in a cell and interrogated. She was taken to the hospital several times, during which she faced a range of harassment, including her contact with her children being cut off for nearly a year and a ban on telephone communication with her husband. Then authorities punished her for making a written request to be taken out of solitary confinement and placed on a normal ward by transferring her to Zanjan Prison; they even used her request as justification for the move. She had never written that she wanted to be transferred to that prison; her request was simply for her period of solitary confinement at Evin Prison to come to an end.
Dervish prisoner Behnam Mahjoubi has been transferred to the Abu Rayhan ward of Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital. He lost feeling in half of his body on Saturday, September 26 because he had not received neurological medication following a seizure. He arrived at Evin Prison on June 20, 2020 to begin serving his two-year sentence and had been held in Ward 8 there. Prior to going to prison, Behnam Mahjoubi's physician had certified that he could not be imprisoned because he suffered from a panic disorder. He had also prescribed medication and had stressed that if Mahjoubi failed to take it, it would have serious implications for his health.
Although by law, prisons are required to provide inmates with any medication they require, in practice, the families bear this responsibility. And often, prison authorities refuse to give inmates their medication even when it is supplied by the family.
Behnam Mahjoubi’s wife Saleheh Hosseini said in an open letter that her husband's health was at risk, but it has had no effect on the situation. Authorities have provided Mahjoubi with his medication so irregularly that, according to his wife, half of his body became paralyzed. For the past month, authorities have been giving him at least 14 sleeping pills a day instead of his medication. The prison doctor threatened him that if he refused to take the pills he would transfer him to Aminabad. The threat was carried out within a month.
In January 2020, journalist Hengameh Shahidi was sent to Aminabad Hospital, despite a prosecutor's order to transfer her to Taleghani Hospital and just when the prison’s forensic medicine department agreed to grant her two months’ leave for treatment. Nahid Kermanshahi, Shahidi’s mother, quoted her daughter on Instagram, saying she resisted hospitalization in Aminabad, and that four men dragged her to the ground and tried to anesthetize her by injecting her with haloperidol, which is usually used for people with psychosis or schizophrenia.
Hashem Khastar, a retired teacher and member of the Teachers' Union, was also taken to a psychiatric hospital after being arrested by the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence agents. He was sent to Ibn Sina Hospital in Mashhad under the pretext of having "mental disorders." He was placed in a patients' ward designated for dangerous prisoners for 20 days and regularly injected with an unknown medication. On the first day of the transfer, agents tied the teacher's arms and legs to the bed and only untied one of his arms to allow him to eat or when they were giving him an injection.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an Iranian-British dual national who was detained by security forces and has been held by the Islamic Republic since April 2016 and used as a hostage in an attempt to negotiate a debt with Britain. On July 16, 2019, the Revolutionary Guards forcibly transferred Nazanin Zaghari to the psychiatric ward of Imam Khomeini Hospital in Tehran. Her family has repeatedly said that they do not know what drugs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was given by injection and orally during this time.
The journalist Kianoosh Sanjari arrived in Iran in 2016 to visit his family and was arrested by the Ministry of Intelligence. After a year and a half in prison, the journalist was granted sick leave on condition that he accept treatment at Aminabad Hospital. He has written extensively about the so-called treatment on social media, and his story is similar to other prisoners’ experiences: injection of unknown drugs, being chained to the bed, and shock therapy.
Sometimes authorities terrorize prisoners by threatening to send them to a psychiatric hospital. The family of Saha Mortezaei, a student who was barred from continuing her studies after she was arrested for taking part in November 2019 protests, was pressured into agreeing to allow her to be sent to a psychiatric hospital. Mortezaei’s mother was told that her daughter's behavior would change after she received electric shocks, and threatened to extend her sentence by two and a half years if the family did not agree to transfer her. Her family had long been worried that their daughter would not survive shock therapy due to a heart condition.
Prisoners Mohammad Ali Babapour, Ensieh Abdolhosseini, Meysam Bahramabadi, Zahra Jabbari, and Amir Mehdi Tabasi were all sent to Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital, and were all injected with drugs they were not informed about; some of them also received shock therapy.
A psychiatrist who had once worked at the Roozbeh Psychiatric Center and witnessed the hospitalization of several prisoners told IranWire that the symptoms Kianoosh Sanjari had described suggested he had been given haloperidol, the same drug Hengameh Shahidi had been given. According to the psychiatrist, security and judiciary departments recruit medical students every year following the annual university entrance exams to work with them and carry out this "treatment" of prisoners.
Iran Uses Methods First Deployed by Soviet-Era Agents
The project of "disabling" activists closely resembles a practice referred to as a "derangement" program, which was used against political opponents in the former Soviet Union. Two years before the collapse of the union, it was revealed that thousands of political dissidents had been taken to mental hospitals, where they were given drugs for mental disorders along with electric shocks. There is speculation that such tactics have again been revived in Russia over the last few years. China, too, has faced accusations of using a similar brand of torture against its dissidents.
In Iran especially, though it is not the only method authorities use against political prisoners, this tactic is used to affect a breakdown in both mind and body simultaneously.
Medical Neglect Also a Dangerous Tool
Agents use straightforward medical neglect too, as IranWire has often reported.
In September 2017, civil activist Emadeddin Baghi announced on his Telegram channel that he had contracted a suspected tumor in prison in 2001, but that Saeed Mortazavi, who was head of the Revolutionary Court during that time, had prevented his treatment: "Apparently the person who objected to the treatment taking place was happy since, because of the delay in treatment, [he hoped] the problematic gland would reach the point of being incurable, and the prisoner would die from the tumor and, by God's grace, they would be relieved of the job."
Baghi's revelation came after news that political activist Alireza Rajaei had been diagnosed with cancer in prison.
Rajaei, who was imprisoned shortly after the 2009 disputed presidential election, was diagnosed with sinus cancer while in prison and following an intensive period of interrogations. His wife was also interrogated and harassed.
Prison officials refused to send the activist for treatment, and doctors were eventually forced to remove parts of his upper jaw, some of his facial muscles and his right eye to prevent his illness from spreading.
There are, of course, deaths, too: Khabat Moradi, who died in the quarantine ward at Sanandaj Central Prison; Shahrokh Zamani, a labor activist who died in Gohardasht Prison, Karaj; Mohammad Hamadi, who died in Sheiban Prison in Ahvaz; and Ehsanollah Ehsani, a young Afghan immigrant who died in Yazd Prison, are just a few examples of prisoners who lost their lives due to lack of medical care. Another prisoner, Iman Rashid al-Din Yeganeh, was wrongly detained following testimony from another individual. Despite his lawyer stating that he would not be able to endure prison, the judge said he could not agree to such a request even if he knew it would result in the prisoner’s death. Yeganeh, who was detained in Khorramabad Parsilon Prison, died after being transferred to a hospital when it was too late to treat him.
The campaign to disable and demobilize political prisoners and ideological prisoners is a long-standing tactic used by Iranian officials working in the judicial, political and national security environments. Bringing about these prisoners’ slow, gradual death or near-death sends an effective, sinister message to the prisoner, the prisoner’s family, colleagues and friends – and to anyone else who may be compelled to behave in a way that could be interpreted as acting against the regime.