Religious Minorities in Iran's Prisons: "You Don't Know What They Do to Us"

September 28, 2021
Maryam Dehkordi
6 min read
Religious Minorities in Iran's Prisons: "You Don't Know What They Do to Us"

"The situation of political and ideological prisoners in Iran is appalling. This isn’t kept secret from anyone. But if you are a religious minority, I’d venture the situation in prison always becomes more intolerable. I have experienced harassment, against myself and others, which I am sure wouldn’t have happened were we not Sunni."

So says Soran, a Sunni citizen of Kurdistan province who has served time in both Sanandaj and Rajaei Shahr Prisons. The ill-treatment he received, he said, began long before he was brought into custody. “The border areas are tightly controlled by the security agencies and all activity in these areas becomes a political-security issue. Whether it’s environmentalism or labor movements, civil or pro-human rights activities, or even simple citizenship claims, everything where I grew up is viewed through a security lens. That’s why the torture and harassment begins even before you get to prison.”

Political defendants in areas like Kurdistan, he says, face particularly harsh treatment from the authorities. "In cases where a person is hit with a political or ideological charge – no matter how credible – their arrest is being carried out in the most terrifying and brutal way possible. Security forces raid their home during the worst hours of the day and night, without the slightest respect for their rights. From the outset, there’s noise, shouting, cursing, beating and sometimes even shots fired, regardless of the neighbors or the makeup of the household. They often violate people's privacy by entering the bedrooms. All that only happens because the person is a religious minority."

In one such raid Soran witnessed, officers fired four shots at the defendant. “Obviously when an attack like this takes place, some people try to escape. This was a simple man. He was facing baseless allegations. His elderly mother was beaten in such a way that several parts of her chest and arms were broken. His wife was sleeping in her pyjamas when they kicked the bedroom door open and entered. He was shot in the leg while trying to escape, and was then beaten so badly we thought he might not live. They took him away anyway."

This particular person, Soraj says, was then interrogated for several weeks alongside other political and security prisoners in the dreadful basement of Sanandaj. "The bullets were left in his leg for a few days. Only when it got infected and his condition became critical did they let the prison doctor come and see him.

“That man was later acquitted and released. That is, in the case of Sunni prisoners, the default is that the person is guilty. They take them and torture them to get the confession they want. If the person doesn’t confess, they’ll look for evidence to prove it, and when that isn’t found, they’ll release the person without feeling any shame. When not found, the person is released without them feeling any shame. If you’re both a Sunni and a Kurd, these two characteristics are enough for you to be guilty."

Years of Warnings by Authorities and Journalists

Similar narratives have been heard before. In one report, the Turkmen journalist Daniel Babayani described the detention of a fellow Sunni Turk as follows: "Six vehicles of security agents, a total of about 25 officers, entered Hamed's house and went up the stairs. Hamed opened the door in the hallway and said, 'Where are you going? My mother doesn’t wear a hijab.' But the officers ignored Hamed's words, kicked down the doorway, entered the house and beat him. While searching of the home, officers confiscated Hamed's personal belongings and put him in a car. His mother tried to stop the officers, but six of them beat her."

In 2019, Sam Brownback, then the US Ambassador for Religious Freedom, said there were at least 109 individuals known to be in Iranian prisons on charges solely related to their non-Shia Muslim faith. A number of others had been executed for the same reason, he said. 

Special reports compiled by UN human rights inspectors in recent years have consistently highlighted the ill-treatment of religious minority prisoners in Iran. Just some of the issues of concern are the high numbers of executions of Sunni prisoners, harassment and ill-treatment of Gonabadi dervishes, abuse of the Ahmadieh Sunni minority, and the disappearance of Yarsani activists and leaders.

Soran was in Rajaei Shahr Prison at the time of the mass execution of Sunni Kurdish prisoners in 2016. “I don’t know how those prisoners were hanged in total media silence, without a significant response from the international community. I don’t think such a thing has happened outside of the 1988 massacre. It’s worth knowing that among those 25 Kurdish prisoners, there were at least five whose request for a retrial was still pending. They were killed in an extrajudicial move alongside others whose death sentences had been finalized."

The former political prisoner added: "I’ve heard from the families of these prisoners that the bodies of their loved ones were bruised and broken in various parts after they were brought down from the gallows. Their hands, chests, and teeth were injured, and their bodies were bloodied. This means they were probably tortured before the execution. It’s happened to Sunni prisoners many times."

What happens to prisoners of conscience and religious minorities behind bars, Soran said, was barely if ever covered outside. "What’s reflected in the media is the tip of the iceberg. Getting information outside is generally costly for prisoners, and if you’re a religious minority, the cost multiplies. You don’t know what happened after news of the Rajaei Shahr executions was published, and when they found out the video of the prisoners' protest had been leaked from inside. They kept us naked for hours in the sun and to inspect the ward. We didn’t even dare blink or shift on our feet. There were a whole lot of broken limbs and heads. Then for a long time, breaks were cancelled, telephone calls and visits were forbidden, and even the food quality deteriorated. For a long time, there was only dinner for four nights a week. No one realizes what happened to us."

No-One is Spared

The systematic dehumanizing of non-Shia Muslim prisoners is not specific to a particular institution, nor to one particular religious minority. A Yarsani ex-political prisoner, who served his sentence in Dieselabad Prison in Kermanshah, told IranWire: "In Kermanshah, because there are a lot of Yarsanis and even those who are now Muslims were once Yarsanis, we were less likely to face discrimination solely based on religion. But the harassment occurred repeatedly nonetheless.”

By means of an example, he cites the forced shaving of Yarsanis’ traditional moustaches in jail, which is meant to humiliate and degrade them. "In December 2020, officials in Saveh Prison forcibly shaved off the moustache of a Yarsani named Javad Ahmadi. Prison and government officials have repeatedly carried out this insulting act.” In addition, he said, “beard shaving in prisons is a common issue. Despite the fact that the barbers are instructed not to touch Yarsanis’ and the dervishes' moustaches, news of these incidents occasionally gets published in the media. In Dieselabad, to harass the Sunni prisoners, they also played music and eulogies that insulted the caliphs and their beliefs. The officers would laugh and ridicule them when they saw how they were suffering.”

Related coverage:

Mother Begs for Jailed Christian's Release Amid Crackdown on Converts in Iran

US Government Publishes Overview of Iran's Crimes Against Religious Minorities

Sketches from Inside an Iranian Prison

Torture and Medical Negligence Led to Prisoner’s Death

Four Decades of Assassination and Imprisonment of Sunni Imams in Iran

The Increasing Pressure on Yarsanis, One of the Largest Religious Minorities in Iran



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