The following exclusive report was published on February 18, 2020 by BBC Persian journalist Hossein Bastani. Given the important information that it contains about the use of sexual torture in Iran’s prisons, IranWire has translated the entire report into English.
Niloufar Bayani, one of the lead defendants in the environmental activists’ case in Iran, has described the way in which the security agency of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (the IRGC) interrogated her in order to extract fabricated confessions. In her description, which the BBC has obtained, she has written that the interrogators exposed her to “the most severe mental and psychological torture, as well as physical and sexual threats” during “at least 1200 hours of interrogation.”
In early February 2020, the environmental expert stated that agents forced her to “mimic wild animals’ sounds” and threatened to inject her with “crippling ampoules and air ampoules.” She emphasized that the interrogators showed her a photo of former colleague Kavous Seyed-Emami’s corpse, warning: “It will be the fate of you and all of your colleagues and family members, unless you write whatever we want.”
Kavous Seyed-Emami, the director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and a well-known environmental activist, was arrested by the IRGC intelligence agency on “espionage” charges on January 24, 2018. According to the judiciary, Seyed-Emami committed suicide in prison on February 8, 2018, but human rights organizations have expressed serious doubt about the validity of this claim.
In a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on February 11, 2019, Bayani described the IRGC interrogators’ behavior. Bayani said that she “was taken, accompanied by seven armed men, to a villa in Lavasan [near Tehran], and forced to watch, despite her hesitation, their immoral and un-Islamic behavior in a private swimming pool.” The letter is part of the defendant’s fruitless communications with various authorities about her situation, which are now being published for the first time.
In another letter addressed to "Hosseini,” the head of the IRGC’s Ward 2-A in Evin Prison, dated January 16, 2019, she outlines other examples of the agents’ behavior. She writes that they “repeatedly made the most filthy sexual insults, with disgusting imaginary details, during long interrogations with the presence of a big team of interrogators, and forced me to complete their sexual fantasies.” In the same letter, she also describes how useless her complaints to various authorities were: “Surprisingly, every time I exposed them [the interrogators] and sought help from the authorities, the pressures and tortures increased and they repeatedly warned me… not to take actions that will make the [security] system more aggressive.”
Also, in her unpublished final defense to the court in September 2019, the prisoner elaborated on her constant fear that her main interrogator might carry out his sexual threats: “CCTVs witness how I was treated by my main interrogator, nicknamed ‘Hamid Rezaie,’ whose name still makes me shake. Due to his shameless behavior, whenever interrogations lasted until the night, I would shake out of fear of being seriously assaulted.” She continued: “It was increasingly terrified that if I didn’t write whatever he wanted, he would commit sexual assault and violence. Because of his inexplicable and unexpected appearances in places like dark corridors and the prison yard, as well as his disgusting behavior, I didn’t feel safe anywhere and my intolerable anxiety never came to an end.”
In another letter dated January 24, 2019 and addressed to Sadegh Larijani, the then chief of Iran’s judiciary, Niloufar Bayani said that IRGC intelligence agents clearly told her that “they will punch the judge’s mouth if, in the court of justice, they issue a verdict other than what the IRGC has determined in advance.” According to an informed source, in early September 2018 Bayani informed the then prosecutor general, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, that her confessions had been extracted under torture, thus being absolutely baseless. But Dolatabadi emphasized that she was not allowed to repeal her confessions.
Morad Tahbaz, Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jokar, Taher Ghadirian, Sepideh (Hamideh) Kashani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh are all defendants in the environmental activists’ case, and were all arrested in February 2018 by the IRGC's intelligence agency on espionage charges. The Ministry of Intelligence, Iran’s other intelligence agency, had announced since their arrest that these allegations were baseless. This ministry views itself as the sole intelligence authority to identify “espionage” cases.
Iran's judiciary announced on February 18, 2020 that the Court of Appeals had upheld the sentences for the eight defendants, which had been issued on October 31, 2019. According to Gholamhossein Esmaili, the spokesman of the judiciary, Morad Tahbaz and Niloufar Bayani were convicted of “collaboration with the hostile government of the US” and sentenced to “10 years of prison and returning the funds” they had allegedly received from the US. Houman Jokar and Taher Ghadirian were convicted of “collaboration with the hostile government of the US” and sentenced to eight years in prison. In addition, Sam Rajabi and Sepideh (Hamideh) Kashani received a six-year prison sentence for “collaboration with the hostile government of the US,” Amirhossein Khaleghi was given six years in prison for “spying”, and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh was handed down four years in jail for “collusion to undermine national security.”
In June 2019, the families of the eight prisoners wrote a letter to Ebrahim Raeesi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, to complain against their “intimidation and the fact that they were tortured to extract confessions.” In their letter, they emphasized that “the IRGC intelligence agency had provided no evidence or documentation” to prove its allegations against the defendants.
“Detailed Description of Torture’s Agony and the Moment of Execution”
In her letter written in early February, Niloufar Bayani described the torture she had suffered during “22 months of illegal temporary detention” in the IRGC’s Ward 2-A at Evin Prison.
“All my confessions regarding espionage or engaging in other criminal activities were dictated and induced under the most severe mental and psychological torture, along with physical and sexual threats during at least 1,200 hours of interrogation,” Bayani wrote. She requested the court to examine “video and audio files of the interrogations” as well as her “medical files” during her detention, in order to verify her remarks.
Bayani stated that her indictment was issued “without even a single reason or [piece of] legal evidence,” and was based only on forced confessions and secret reports by the armed forces. She added: “According to the judge of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, these reports were so secret that the defendant, her lawyer and not even the judge himself were allowed to view [them].”
Describing the behavior she was exposed to, Niloufar Bayani referred to various situations, including “daily threats of execution,” “eight months of total isolation in solitary confinement with long interrogations lasting nine to 12 hours day and night,” “interrogations blindfolded while standing or spinning, or in a sit-and-stand situation,” “insulting the prisoner and her family members,” and “humiliation in different ways, eg forcing her to mimic sounds of wild animals.”
Bayani added that the agents threatened that they would “arrest and torture her 70-year-old mother and father,” that she would be “imprisoned in a one-meter cell,” and that they would subject her to physical torture through showing illustrated and detailed descriptions of agony and pain caused by torture, as well as to detailed description of the moment of execution.” They also pressured the defendant by claiming that her colleagues had been executed.
She also wrote that the interrogators “lifted her sleeve and threatened to inject crippling ampoules and air ampoules,” adding that “during weeks of interrogation one of the agents kicked her chair so many times that she suffered severe back pains.” According to Niloufar Bayani, a turbaned interrogator urged her “to choose if she wanted to be flogged 70 times in two days or 50 times in a single day.” In her January 16, 2019 letter to the head of Ward 2-A, Bayani stated that the aforementioned person claimed he held “special authorization” from the head of the IRGC intelligence agency, Hossein Taeb, “to torture the prisoner by ordering [the agents] to flog her.”
In her letter to Ayatollah Khamenei on February 11, 2019, Niloufar Bayani made a separate reference to the “turbaned individual,” stating that this person once told her that he would be holding part of her trial in the IRGC’s interrogation room, adding: “When I expressed surprise, he became angry and threw a chair at me, which hurt my knee.”
The way in which Niloufar Bayani was forced to “confess” has key importance in the trial of the environmentalist activities. Not only are she and Morad Tahbaz the lead defendants in the environmentalists’ case, but their confessions constitute the IRGC’s main “evidence” in the indictment. So, in order to accuse these eight individuals, the IRGC intelligence agency has relied on the “confessions” extracted from the two defendants, both of whom have emphasized in the court that they had confessed under torture.
According to Iranian law, a defendant’s confession is valid if and only if they confess about themselves (not about others), and if they confess freely in the presence of the court’s judge; hence the confessions that were made in the interrogation room or under torture are not legally acceptable.
“Shown a Photo of Seyed-Emami’s Corpse”
In her description of the interrogation process, Niloufar Bayani explained how the interrogators used the death of Kavous Seyed-Emami to make her confess. Emphasizing that she was “mentally and physiologically devastated” due to “the conditions of the solitary confinement and total isolation,” she said: “What completed my psychological collapse was that I was suddenly shown a photo of Dr. Seyed-Emami’s corpse in the morgue as his family stood by. They [the interrogators] told me: That will be the fate of you and all of your colleagues and family members unless you write whatever we want.”
She stated: “While I had completely lost the strength to resist the interrogators’ pressures, they dictated things that were later used as leverage to pressure me. They said: You wrote your death sentence with your own hand. You can’t get off this train anymore.” She quoted her interrogators as saying: “The only way to save yourself and your colleagues is to completely write whatever we want, i.e., the imaginary and unbelievable scenario of espionage under the cover of protecting the environment.”
After the suspicious death of Kavous Seyed-Emami in prison in February 2018, part of his autopsy report was leaked to the media, which indicated the existence of “bruises in various parts of the body,” “signs of hypodermic injection in the corpse,” and “bruises caused by pressure around the neck.” However, efforts made by the victim’s family to push for further investigation into his death were unsuccessful. In addition, the family's judicial complaint against Iran’s state-run television network did not bring about any result.
Iranian TV had broadcast a film entitled Forbidden Zone, which accused Seyed-Emami of spying for “US and Israeli intelligence agencies,” and claimed the victim had “confessed to espionage” before his alleged suicide.
Referring to Mother’s Pilgrimage to Mecca as Proof of “Connections to Saudi Arabia”
The BBC has obtained the records of the first session of Niloufar Bayani’s trial on January 30, 2019, during which Judge Abolghassem Salavati referred to the defendant’s personal emails to accuse her of espionage. These emails were provided to the court by IRGC interrogators.
The judge reportedly cited an English email sent by Bayani to Morad Tahbaz, in which the phrase “burnt out” was used, and said: “Why did you tell Morad that you were burnt out? It is a spy’s term.” Bayani replied: “This is a common expression in English, which means to be exhausted due to hard work. Your translation is incorrect.”
In the same trial session, the judge pointed to Noloufar Bayani making a joke in an email to prove that she had links to Israel. In the email, she had written to one of her friends: “Tonight I will get an Israeli passport and will also change my religion!” The accused replied: “I was just kidding and am very sorry for my country, where such a joke is evoked as documentation.”
Again in the same session, Judge Salavati referred to the Canadian citizenship applications that were found in the defendant’s personal mailbox to charge her with having connections with Saudi Arabia and having traveled to this country.
In response, Niloufar Bayani explained that she had never written in her application (which did not lead to obtaining Canadian citizenship) that she had traveled to Saudi Arabia, and that it was yet another misunderstanding by the court. The defendant said what the court had misunderstood was that she had completed a separate Canadian citizenship application for her mother. Bayani, in response to the latter application’s question about the applicant’s foreign trips in the past, had pointed to her mother’s trip to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. She added that the trip was for the Hajj pilgrimage, and, after all, traveling to Saudi Arabia is no crime for Iranian citizens.
At the end of the first trial session, Niloufar Bayani announced to the judge that she had been forced under torture to confess against herself, but Abolghassem Salavati expelled her from the court. During the second trial session, too, Bayani repeated that she had been forced to confess under torture, the only result of which is that the judge did not let the defendant attend her third, fourth and fifth trial sessions.
According to an informed source, the court finally issued Noloufar Bayani’s verdict on October 30, 2019, in the absence of the defendant’s lawyer. The ruling was upheld in the Court of Appeal on February 18, 2020. In the session, the judge did not show the text of the verdict to Bayani or agree with her request for her lawyer’s presence at the court. The informed source emphasized that instead, Judge Salavati said “this is the fate of spies,” and ordered the agents to remove the defendant from the court. They did so with violence, forcing her to leave the court on her hands and knees.
Punished for Receiving Salary from the UN
Despite convicting the defendant of having connections with hostile countries, the judge was not able to precisely explain what secret information Niloufar Bayani allegedly sent abroad, and what financial profit she made out of this collaboration. In order to fill this legal gap in her case, the court interpreted Bayani’s previous cooperation with the UN, when she lived abroad, as evidence of receiving money from foreign countries. After graduating from McGill University in Canada with a BSc in Biology and completing an MA in Conservation Biology from Columbia University, Niloufar Bayani worked for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for five years before returning to Iran in summer 2017.
In part of the lower court’s verdict, which was upheld in the Court of Appeal, the salary she had received from the UNEP in Switzerland (US$365,000 according to the court), is referred to as “crime-based wealth” and she was ordered to “return” it to the Iranian government. The court verdict does not explain why, considering that Iran is a member of the UN, an Iranian citizen working for this organization is viewed as a crime.
An even more strange incrimination has been used against Morad Tahbaz, the main defendant of the case against the environmentalists and a board member of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation. Authorities have accused him of obtaining “crime-based wealth.”
According to an informed source, the IRGC interrogators pressured Tahbaz to tell them the total income of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation during his decade-long cooperation with the organization. As a result, the defendant pointed to an approximate number, emphasizing that 90 percent of this income had been provided by internal funders and in Iran’s currency, the rial.
However, the interrogators reportedly asked the defendant to work out the estimated budget in US dollars, which produced the approximate amount of $600,000.
The above amount is mentioned in the court’s verdict as Morad Tahbaz’s personal income from an illegal activity, and he has been ordered to “return” the $600,000 “crime-based wealth” to the government.