Narges Mohammadi, a prominent human rights activist in Iran, was released from Zanjan prison at midnight on October 8, 2020.
The 48-year-old has been arrested and incarcerated by the regime several times over the years. In May 2016 she was sentenced to an outrageous 16 years in prison for her campaigning against the death penalty, two years after meeting in Tehran with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
While critically ill with a pulmonary embolism and a neurological disorder, Mohammadi was held in Evin Prison up until 2019. In the wake of the the November 2019 protests, she staged a sit-in in the prison in solidarity with the families of Iranian civilians who had been killed on the streets by security forces. As a consequence she was abruptly transferred to Zanjan, a jail for “ordinary” offenders rather than “political” ones.
The following is Narges Mohammadi's first interview with the media since her release. In conversation with IranWire, she reflects on the differences between Evin and Zanjan, the handling of coronavirus in Iran’s detention centers, and the disquieting social media reaction to her release. Mohammadi has also just published a book, White Torture, which details the harrowing treatment of 12 female prisoners in Iran.
Recently you have been held in two different Iranian prisons, Evin and Zanjan. How different were they?
I experienced two contrasting, in fact, completely divergent situations. Although both were prisons, they were not alike at all. From a physical point of view, in terms of the buildings, and the small green garden that was in the courtyard of Evin Prison, there were all sorts of differences. The inmates were also different. And they varied in terms of the facilities available to prisoners, such as access to a book, or an audio file, or a film. In essence, Zanjan Prison was much worse.
What problems did you face in Zanjan?
We faced difficulties in Zanjan Prison in every way. There was not even the slightest access to exercise facilities. In a political prison [Evin] I could talk to my friends about various issues or exchange books, but this was not the case in Zanjan.
One difference that may not seem important to you, but can impact on a prisoner, was that in Evin there was a kitchen we could use. But in Zanjan, as these were “ordinary” prisoners who might use the fire for illegal purposes, we were not afforded access to a kitchen. There was one person who boiled the water for us and came in to distribute the food.
In addition to this, there were restrictions on me that did not arise from my merely being among “ordinary” prisoners or being in a “normal” prison.
Do you think this was a decision by the security services?
Absolutely. They wanted to control everything about my case. Zanjan Prison officials repeatedly told me that they were not allowed to do anything.
For example, it was understandable that there were no knives on an ordinary ward because sharp objects are dangerous. I myself did not elect to be different from the others, but I was deprived of the facilities of a normal prisoner.
Some of the prisoners had an MP4 player, and I wanted no more than this. But it took them four months to agree my request to buy one. I paid up, and they bought it for me, but then it was not delivered. They told me, “We weren’t allowed to give it to you!”. I didn’t want any positive discrimination in my favor, but I couldn’t tolerate that “negative” discrimination either.
What did you find most difficult about women prisoners’ treatment?
More than anything, it was hard for me to observe the overall situation of women prisoners. I realized these women are just victims. In the murders they committed, or in any other crimes, everyone had plainly been a victim. They were victims of an authoritarian regime; victims of a patriarchal, misogynistic society and government. Now, the victims of these conditions were also victims in prison, and now they had lost everything. They would have no opportunity to make their voices heard.
It upset me a lot when I passed in front of the murderers’ cells. On many occasions, my own sorrow and homesickness faded in the face of what I was seeing.
On June 8, we had a scheduled execution [of a prisoner] on our ward. It was the scariest night of my life. It began with their taking the woman out, and continued with the cries we heard, and her calling her daughter, right up until the morning call to prayer, when I heard the door open… It was so painful, I can’t say.
News came that the plaintiff had not consented, even as they pulled the stool out from under her feet. I was saddened for a long time by the thought of that woman hanging from the rope. Because of her circumstances, I fully understood that she too had just been a victim; even in the moments when she had committed the murder.
I saw Zanjan Prison beyond the building and beyond its facilities. For me, it was a locus of social issues, in which people were of little consequence and everyone was a victim. Social harms and calamities had befallen people that had placed them in the guilty seat. It made it all the harder for me to endure.
Your book White Torture has just been published. Where did the idea come from?
For some time I had wondered what I could do about white [psychological] torture. I was kept in solitary confinement for the first time in 2001, at Eshrat Abad intelligence detention center. About 65 religious activists and members of the Freedom Movement had recently been arrested at that time.
This was essentially a men’s detention center; the other prisoners were men, I was on the men’s ward, and the guards and interrogators were all men. So I alone experienced solitary confinement in a male environment.
As such, it was a difficult experience in two ways. Firstly, because it was the first time I had been subjected to solitary confinement and I was helpless in my cell. Secondly, because the prisoner who accompanied me to the bathroom was a man. The toilet and bathroom doors were not closed from the inside and indeed, were practically open. It put me under additional stress.
Right after my arrest, I decided to do something: to write or even film my experiences and share them with others. Solitary confinement had led to illness, but this only increased my motivation to work on this.
What was your intention in writing the book?
To put a stop to this kind of torture, a method gifted to us by other countries and passed down to our prison guards. People who experience solitary confinement have ended up making confessions that justified harsh sentences against them – or have become impassive.
In my opinion the Islamic Republic of Iran is quite consciously using the solitary detention of civil and political activists as a means of intimidation. It sends the message: think how long it could be before you get out of the cell next time!
For me, therefore, it led to two imperatives. From a human rights perspective I feel action should be taken against torture as an inhumane act. But also, I believe we need to remove the obstacles imposed on activists. Therefore, we have to bring an end to this.
What were health measures like in Zanjan Prison?
When coronavirus broke out in Iran, one of my fears was that we didn’t even have access to normal standards of healthcare, let alone protection against a deadly virus. In prison, I repeatedly told officers and officials that it would be impossible to deal with an outbreak on the ward in this situation.
We had some disinfectants in Evin Prison, but in Zanjan there was nothing of the sort. We were given just liter of bleach to last us a month, which was nowhere near enough. It wasn’t even enough for our normal everyday use. Controlling the spread was unworkable when we shared the telephone and corridors with new arrivals. I asked them over and over to buy us hand sanitizer, at our own expense, but for a long time they wouldn’t.
Did anyone die of Covid-19 in Zanjan?
No but because of the new arrivals, of the 16 people who were on the ward, 12 of us were infected with coronavirus. After this, and after intense protestation, we were given four half-liter bottles of disinfectant.
And medical examinations weren’t happening?
Not at all. There were no doctors. My breathing was abnormal, but we weren’t given access to oxygen. Worst of all, because they were denying that we even had coronavirus, there were no plans in place for how to deal with a Covid-19 patient.
We all took a test on July 8 and got the results on July 21, with 12 coming back positive. We were separated from the others and quarantined for 35 days without access to any facilities.
The story of your visit from the prison doctor made the news.
The doctor you saw on TV has a different story. This doctor never saw us in prison. Every once in a while, a person would come and examine those of us who seemed to be ill. But there was no clinic. So every time this particular doctor came, the women would be kept behind a door, and it was the prison guards who actually determined whether or not you were sick.
But interestingly, within two days [of the positive tests], going to see the doctor was made mandatory. The doctor saw me on July 24. The next day a prison officer came to me and said, “You should come for another examination. The head of the prison and the head of the Prisons Organization will be there too.” I wondered why the senior judicial authorities should need to examine us.
Everything that was aired by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting was censored. The part where I explained my condition was removed and a short film was made from the rest. Watching this film on the IRIB brought on a complete moral collapse inside the prison. The ward exploded. Inmates demanded to know, "What right do you have, to say that Zanjan Prison does not have a coronavirus outbreak?"
When you were released, your made-up appearance was judged and analyzed on social media. What did you make of this?
Everyone has a right to privacy that others should not encroach on. But because it’s in dispute, I’ll say this: struggle is a part of our lives.
I have been on the same path since 1992. For me, struggle and resistance are defined as my course in life, and this is the course I have chosen. But at the same time, even as we agitate for democracy and human rights, we are still living beings. When I was in Evin, I used to wear makeup. I don’t believe I should always have to be fighting. Even while in prison, you can live and be happy.
It is immoral to consider this a weakness, and immoral to want to diminish someone in this way. I am a woman, and part of my life, inside or outside prison, is what you saw, and it has nothing to do with a person’s resistance or a person’s steadfastness in their ideals.
In Zanjan, I was informed, “You have a case against you for starting a dance in Evin Prison after lights out.” I told them that I’d keep doing this even if they considered it a crime. I have maintained my life, my femininity and my motherhood, and I will continue to struggle with all these qualities.