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Society & Culture

A Journalist’s Story of Jail, Interrogations and Rape Threats

June 14, 2016
9 min read
A Journalist’s Story of Jail, Interrogations and Rape Threats

On the anniversary of her detention in Evin Prison in June 2009, prominent journalist and political activist Hengameh Shahidi has spoken out for the first time about the brutal treatment she endured at the hands of her interrogators.

Writing on Iranian website Saham on June 12, Shahidi describes how she was beaten, intimidated, held in solitary confinement and put under enormous pressure to make false confessions. She also published her harrowing account on Facebook.

Shahidi was arrested along with thousands of other Iranians during the widespread protests that followed the country’s disputed presidential election in 2009 — which ushered in a second term for hardliner president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad despite the fact that millions of Iranians cast their votes for reformist candidates including Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. 

Then aged 41, Shahidi had been studying for a Ph.D. in human rights in the United Kingdom, and had returned to Iran to conduct research. While in Iran, she started working as an advisor at Karroubi’s campaign headquarters.

Shahidi was arrested on June 30 and detained for four months — two and a half of them in solitary confinement — until authorities released her on bail pending trial on October 28. The Revolutionary Court sentenced her to six years in prison for “propaganda against the regime, participation in illegal gatherings and insulting the president of the Islamic Republic.” On February 24, 2010, the Ministry of Intelligence summoned her to prison, where she remained for three and a half years, before being released in the autumn of 2013. During that time, she was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack.

Here is her story.

Every Year Between June 12 and July 1...

Every year, between June 12 and July 1, I lie awake until the morning. The horrifying memories of 2009 march before me like a movie. Sometimes I go back and watch the movie from the beginning. I fast- forward the scenes or review them in slow motion.

We tried to establish democracy, but they called us “foreign imports.” I had returned from England to do some research. I wanted to work with Mehdi Karroubi as an advisor and a member of his campaign to prevent Ahmadinejad from getting re-elected because it was obvious that his government would lead to the decline of the country.

I remember June 12, 2009 [the day of the election] and the attack on the campaign headquarters of Mir Hossein Mousavi in the Gheytarieh district of Tehran. I remember 10pm, when it was more or less officially announced that Ahmadinejad had been re-elected. I remember June 13 and the demonstrations by the people who demanded their legal rights.

At two in the morning of June 14, a silver Toyota Camry arrived to take me away — but it did not succeed. With the help of a friend, I left home early in the morning without them noticing.

On June 15, I entered Yadegar-e Emam Stadium and walked toward a cargo container on which Mr. Karroubi was standing. He noticed me and asked his bodyguards to protect me so I could leave without being arrested in the crowd.

For two weeks, I stayed with friends. I tried to prepare my mind for the arrest. I wrote my will and, in a letter, I explained step by step what my family was to do after my arrest.

I had a return ticket for London on June 28, but that was not possible now.

Sixty Agents Looking for Me

Officials claimed that 60 people were mobilized across the country to find me. I remember my mother told them: “For every 900 grams of my daughter’s weight you have assigned an agent? Is my daughter a murderer? Is she a terrorist?”

On June 30, I was literally abducted at Heravi Square. They had me lie on the backseat. I was extremely worried that they were taking me to an illegal detention center.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the entrance to Evin Prison. At least I was being taken to a safe place.

For 45 days my family had no news of me. They were even about to go to the morgue to search for me. My name was not registered on Evin’s list of prisoners.

I think back to the two and a half months of solitary confinement and my fear of the gallows. Late at night they would take me out of solitary confinement to intimidate me and threaten me with execution.

On my first night, they took me to a room with a large window, like they had caught some hard-to-capture prey. Evin's interrogators gathered on the other side of the window and were happily and pointedly watching their colleagues humiliating and insulting me.

Interrogators beat me and put me under serious pressure between four pm and 10pm that night. My blood pressure plummeted and I was half-conscious. The interrogators called a female guard to force me to get up. I could not stand up, so they held me by my armpits and dragged me across the floor and up the stairs like a rag. Then they transferred me from the basement of Ward 209 to the ward clinic.

I remember how the ward clinic refused to accept me, so they transferred me to Evin’s main clinic. They threw 20 military-issue blankets over me to stop me from shaking. It was the middle of summer but my blood pressure had dropped sharply and my heartbeat had slowed down.

I remember the voice of the doctor while I was half-conscious. He was shouting at the head of Ward 209: “You have brought me a dead body. I cannot take responsibility.”

There was a sting of constant injections to bring my blood pressure and my heart rate. The doctor continuously shouted “Atropine! Atropine!”

A Humane Warden

I will never forget the humanity of the chief warden of Ward 209. He visited me in the middle of the night to see how I was doing. “Under no circumstances should you give false confessions — against yourself or others — even if it costs you your life.”

The head of Ward 209 was replaced after he objected to my continuous interrogations and beatings. I lost all sense of feeling in my fingers because, every day, I copied out the letter Imam Ali wrote to his follower, Malik Al-Ashtar, insisting that rulers must be just. I sent this letter to the new head of Ward 209, and to Tehran’s prosecutor.

My head is killing me! Leave me alone! 

I remember all the pressures on me to give written and TV confessions, and to agree to be tried in a kangaroo court.

I was pressured to confess to all kinds of crimes, from moral offenses to espionage. I was pressured to testify against reformist leaders Karroubi and [former president Mohammad] Khatami. I was pressured to admit that MI6 had used me to make sure Mousavi’s campaign headquarters brought people onto the streets  — just because I had been studying for my Ph.D. in England for the last four years.

I see before my eyes that trumped-up case file, 600 pages long, prepared without any legal evidence and even without a confession from me. The only charge I did accept was an interview I gave about Ahmadinejad in which I had said he had tarnished the dignity and the reputation of the Iranian presidency on the international stage. For insulting the president, I was sentenced to six months in prison.

My arrest warrant was issued by Saeed Mortazavi on June 10, two days before the elections. Every day for 21 days, a counter-espionage team from the Intelligence Ministry interrogated me for 18 hours. Every day, seven agents surrounded me in a cell measuring two foot by one foot. Every day they bombarded me with questions, and drained my energy.

Playing the Interrogator

I can remember Fariba, my cellmate for 45 days, beginning with the first day of Ramadan, on August 22.

I remember the visits from my family and how we rejoiced over the most trivial items that were brought to us from outside the prison.

I can see before my eyes our funny and tragic playacting. I played the role of Fariba’s interrogator. From morning till dawn, we rehearsed, just like the night before school exams, so that she would suffer less and get a lighter sentence.

I recall how they wouldn’t let us go to bathroom more than three times a day. In protest, I refused to go to the visiting room.

I still ache when I remember that every day I suffered from aches in my back and my neck and that every day I was sick and had to go Evin’s clinic. The only consolation was that there was one percent chance that we might meet our friends at the clinic.

I remember the basement and the physiotherapy room at Evin where I spent time, along with [journalist and human rights activist] Emadeddin Baghi and [reformist politicians] Feizollah Arabsorkhi and Mohsen Aminzadeh — they were good excuses for visiting the clinic.

My whole body freezes when I remember the freezing cells of Ward 240. My hands ache when I remember hitting the walls in Ward 240 with my fists. My throat gets sore when I remember when I screamed at an interrogator called “Doctor 240.” He thought I owed him a debt of gratitude for his humanity because he did not rape me behind the closed doors of that two foot by one foot cell when nobody else was around.

I get ecstatic when I remember the day when, in the exercise yard of Ward 240, I happened to meet [journalist] Masoud Bastani, [pro-democracy activist and student leader] Abdollah Momeni, [reformist activist] Jahanbakhsh Khanjani and [politician] Hamzeh Karami. I felt mischievous and flashed them a victory sign from under my chador to boost their morale.

I smell death when I remember my eight-day hunger strike, and when I fainted at the Revolutionary Court’s Branch 26 on the day of my trial. I remember Evin’s communal ward and the unjust six-year sentence to prison.

Now those days are seven years in the past. Those days in the summer of 2009 can only be understood by me and my friends who were arrested in those days. They cannot be compared to other periods when other political prisoners were arrested.

In any case, seven years have passed. Those who deserved the shame still deserve it. I know that the sun will rise again. I know the god of heaven.


Follow Hengameh Shahidi on Facebook



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