The fragile situation of prisoners in Iran is never out of sight for long. Activists, ex-political detainees and even whistleblowers have constantly sought to inform the public about the deplorable conditions in Iran’s prisons, and will probably continue to do so for some time to come.
But for now at least, less has been said about the situation of homosexuals and transgender people in Iranian prisons. Homosexuals and trans people in Iran suffer the triple-pronged threat of religion, tradition, and law. On top of that, their situations are out of the ordinary.
According to IranWire's findings, most LGBT prisoners are held in Evin Prison in Tehran province, detained for alleged crimes from “nudity” or “feminine behavior” to recognized criminal acts such as robbery and fraud.
Prison is a frightening place for LGBT Iranians. The conditions in which they are held are just as bad as those for people convicted of national security crimes. Long periods of solitary confinement and the deprivation of their rights are, as always, just the beginning.
Up until March 2020, most known gay and transgender prisoners were being held on Ward 240 of Evin Prison. Ward 240 is at the disposal of the Ministry of Intelligence of the Islamic Republic. It has several storeys, and each floor features a long corridor from which there are several cells on each side. Each cell has a small hatch, and at the bottom a small door, like that of a mailbox. There are two types of cells in this section; smaller ones that are three and a half square meters each, and others that measure around eight square meters. Inside each is a basin and a shower, as well as a “window” close to the ceiling covered with a metal mesh.
It is not possible to open the windows. No one can reach them. The gay and transgender prisoners of Ward 240 were held in the eight-square-meter cells, often entirely alone for the duration of their imprisonment, which could last for years on end.
Ahmad, 27, was sentenced to five years in prison on fraud charges, which he ended up serving at Evin between 2015 and 2019. He spent three years and seven months in a solitary cell on Ward 240 before finally being released on parole and emigrating to Turkey.
"When I came to the prison in 2015,” he says, “one of the old prisoners in the quarantine area (Ward One), who was actually the deputy lawyer [responsible for the ward], bothered me. That same day, I informed the prison authorities that I was gay. Two days later, amid all sorts of humiliation and insults, I was transferred to Ward 240: an old, dirty building, and to be honest, a little scary.
“We went up to the third floor of this building, and the second cell on the right was mine: a cell wtihout a bed. There was just a carpet on the floor, three blankets, and a shower and toilet separated from rest of the cell by a curtain."
Ever since, Ahmad has wished he had not revealed his sexual orientation. He was held in “Tomb 240”, as he calls it, for years and because his sexual orientation was also mentioned in his case file, there was no way to get out.
Ahmad's account of his treatment by inmates and prison officials is harrowing. "Every now and then they beat me on any pretext, insulted me, swore at me, and addressed me in terms that I am still ashamed to repeat now."
In the 43 months that he was in Ward 240 without leave, Ahmad says, he was never once allowed to buy from the prison store; once a week someone would come to his cell and take an order from him. Around 48 hours later they would deliver an incomplete set of goods to him and demand a higher price.
He was allowed to use the phone just once a day for two to 10 minutes at a time, and finally, in his last four months in prison, a transgender person was brought in to share a room with him. Before his new cellmate arrived, guards added two more cameras to the room so that the pair could be more easily observed.
Other prisoners on Ward 240 have reported a lack of daily access to the kitchen and prison store. The lack of family support to many LGBT Iranians means many are also unable to provide bail money, and so they are forced to remain in prison long after bail has been set.
Transfer to the Basement of Ward One
In January 2020, after a flurry of reports were published pointing out the grim conditions these prisoners were dealing with, most of them were abruptly transferred to the basement of a different building in Evin.
Through the main gates of Evin Prison, across the green space and through to the other side of the administrative buildings, stands a building known as Andarzgah (Ward) One. The ground floor is being used as a quarantine space, where prisoners are held for at least two days, after which, depending on the conviction, they will be distributed across the rest of the complex.
But Ward One also has a basement. Past the guard’s room is a small door on the right that is always closed, but leads 16 steps down to another small door, beyond which lies the land of the forgotten. For years, the underground floor has either stood empty or held overflow prisoners for a limited period of time. Since January 2020, it has instead housed the gay and transgender prisoners of the Islamic Republic.
The basement has no amenities. No outdoor space for breaks and exercise, no store to buy goods from without the help of intermediaries. But there are cameras: at least three for every prisoner, according to those who have been held. Aside from the surveillance, the only other relic of Ward 240 is the daily insults and humiliation from the guards.
Lack of Family Support Makes the Situation Worse
One Ward One basement detainee, who recently went on leave, told IranWire that the absence of family support made life in this miserable space even harder.
"We are imprisoned in these harsh conditions for a long time,” they said, “often for petty crimes involving just one, private plaintiff. We were cursed with long periods of solitary confinement and now a life underground.
“When we raise these issues with our families, they say this is what we deserve - and maybe even that this will correct us.”