In the afternoon of Sunday, November 17, 2019, on the third day of the nationwide protests that followed a sudden and sharp increase in gas prices in Iran, a video of a Kurdish woman in Bukan, a city in West Azerbaijan, was posted and reposted across social networks and turned into a symbol of women’s presence on the civilian battlefield. It was powerful enough that even the Iranian regime’s propaganda agents had to concede that “certain women” have been prominent among the demonstration “leaders”.
The video shows a woman standing on the roof of a car in the middle of a rally. She has her hands raised up in a gesture of victory while chanting and encouraging others around her.
On the same day, it was reported that a woman by the name of Shelir Davand had been shot dead by security forces in that city. But, on November 20, the report was proven wrong when the news program “20:30” on state television broadcast a video of Shelir “Fatemeh” Davand’s forced confession.
Davand was sentenced to five years in prison. Ten days ago, just before being placed back behind bars in Urmia, she gave an interview to IranWire.
On the morning of Thursday, August 6, a few hours before returning to prison, Davand speaks of that febrile Sunday in November 2019. She says she was protesting against poverty, high prices, mismanagement and injustice, and has no regrets about what she has done.
Who is Fatemeh Davand?
Fatemeh Davand is 42 years old. She has an ICT diploma and is married with three children under the age of 18. She was the sole proprietor of a servicing company. “I worked by myself and did the cleaning as well,” she says. “My husband has a truck and a business partner and they’re in the business of moving household items. Of course, they revoked my permit after I was arrested and I have been without a job since I was released on bail.”
Under these conditions in Iran, Davand says, no-one can afford to stay silent. Caring deeply about social issues is part of the fabric of her life: “I had participated in protests before and written a memoir about it, though it has not been published. In 2001 I got a permit to publish a monthly magazine, named Pezhvak, and together with three friends of mine I published one issue.”
The magazine was rapidly shut down by security forces in early 2001 and the team of four young women disbanded. “To better introduce Pezhvak to people after the first issue was published,” she says, “we rented a cinema in Bukan for an afternoon. But this coincided with a Kurdish political event and this gave the security forces an excuse to butt in. On the day, a few hours before we were due to start, they arrested all four of us. Of course, they released us the next day, but after that the magazine was closed down.”
“I Wanted my Voice to be Heard”
On the afternoon of November 17, 2019, a small group of protesters gathered around the Bukan governor’s office in the town center, and Davand joined them at around 2:30pm. “The situation had become unbearable,” she says. “I’d had it with what they were doing to us, and decided that my voice had to be heard. The crowd wasn’t too big to begin with, but the police were there in force. I stood in front of the passing cars so that they would stop and join the protesters. Then I climbed onto the roof of a car and started talking to people.”
People gathered around her, she says, because they were as unhappy about the situation as she was, and what she said was in all of their hearts. “I said, ‘I’m a tenant, I pay rent, I have three kids and at these prices it’s impossible for us to go on living. How much long do we have to suffer this situation?’. As the crowd got bigger, the police tried to convince me to get down, but I refused. They even brought over my father and brother to try to convince me. More and more police came over. I just said, ‘This protest is for bread: the bread that you have denied us.’”
Davand says she stayed on top of the car for close to two hours. She chanted and held forth about the rights of her fellow protesters. “I said, ‘In order to eat a starving person has to either get involved in prostitution and robbery, or protest to get their dues – and we have chosen the second way.’ As the rally wore on the governor came down among the protesters and told me, ‘Ms. Davand, come down and we can talk’, but I refused once again.”
As the crowd swelled and the chants grew more forceful, security forces on the scene took decisive action, trying to disperse the protesters by firing teargas. “I was still up there and did not take it seriously,” Davand recalls, “but a few minutes later, the shooting started. A bullet whistled past me so I jumped down from the roof of the car and, after spending some time in the crowd, I left the scene.”
She points out that the bullet only missed her because she had jumped down at just the right moment, but others thought she had been hit, which led to the rumors of her death.
Her husband, who was traveling north with his partner to buy a truck at the time, heard the erroneous news and called the house. “I told him that I was OK and he shouldn’t worry,” says Davand. “‘On the contrary,’ he said. ‘You must worry. It’s better that you leave home; without a doubt, they’ll come for you.’ He suggested I take the children and go to the home of a relative in Saghez [a city in Kurdistan province] and stay there until he got back.”
The Military is Scrambled to Arrest a Lone Woman
Davand her children traveled to Saghez and spent the night there. “We were all asleep,” she says, “when at around 1am the noise of people moving about on the roof woke me up. It was a bizarre situation. There were so many armed agents up on the roof, in the yard and in the alley, you would have thought they had come to arrest a top military commander and his entourage. They’d climbed the wall into the yard without knocking on the door and then clambered up onto the roof. The landlord and his wife were horrified, but I told them, ‘Don’t be afraid. They’ve come for me.’”
[Title: Fatemeh Davand returns to prison]
Davand says she did not resist and was prepared to go with them. The only question she asked was why there were no female agents present. Her 15-year-old son asked one of the officers why they were grabbing his mother by the hands and feet, and why they couldn’t let her stand up for herself and walk with them. “They slapped my son hard for saying this and then slapped the landlord’s son for saying the same,” says Davand. “My two younger children started crying as they dragged me off, not letting me stand on my own two feet.”
This was the moment that the Intelligence Ministry’s choreographed set-up for a video of Davand’s arrest, and for breaking her down to elicit a forced confession, first began. “Inside the car,” she says, “I was seated between two agents and there was a camera recording me. When we reached Bukan they took me to the intelligence detention center and I was there until morning. They put me in a cell, visited me a few times during the night, and videotaped me. They didn’t speak, except for once, when one of them started insulting me and hurling obscenities at me.”
On the morning of Monday, November 18, they loaded Davand and six or seven other detainees, who were all male, into a van and drove them to Urmia. “‘All the interrogations will be done in front of a camera,’ they said, ‘and you must talk.’ They wanted me to say what they wanted me to say. I resisted and they said, ‘Even if you’re here for three years, you’ll only be released and get to see your children if you recite what we tell you in front of the camera.’ A few days went by in the same manner. But I kept repeating what had really happened.”
Listen to the Screams at Night
On the morning of Wednesday, November 28, an agent they said was the director-general of the intelligence bureau came to Davand’s call. “I have come here to give you an ultimatum,” he said. “If you don’t cooperate you will be treated differently, and in the end, you’ll regret it because you’ll be back where we started and we will never release you.
“At night, you’re hearing the ones who refused to cooperate with us. You’d better say whatever we want you to say. In exchange, I promise you that your case won’t go before the court and I’ll release you tomorrow so you you can go to your children. You don’t want your children to grow up without their mother, do you?”
Every night, Davand says, the screams of men being tortured in the other cells terrified her. She gave in out of desperation and “confessed” as they demanded.
They told Davand that they make many of these videotapes, but do not broadcast them anywhere. “Around a dozen of them were in the room,” she remembers, “but I could not see their faces because they were standing in the dark and the light was shining in my eyes. A few of them barged in as I was answering questions. Sometimes I had to repeat the answers in a way that they would approve of. Even then, I refused to say a lot of things. After I was released on bail, I saw the video on the 20:30 program and noticed that they had edited and manipulated what I had said. They only broadcast a few seconds of it.”
Even a Forced Confession is Not Enough
The televised film claimed that Davand “had been arrested while trying to escape across the border and she has confessed to her connections”. It said she had met “counter-revolutionary groups” in Iraqi Kurdistan and had taken part in the demonstrations on their instructions, while planning to flee to “enemy camps” in Iraqi Kurdistan. Davand denies all of this and never even said it under duress.
After the video was recorded, they let Davand call her family for a few minutes, and she spoke to her husband and youngest child. “They told me I was not allowed to speak Kurdish,” she says. “This was very difficult for my 8-year-old boy who has difficulty understanding Persian. How can you talk to your little child in any language except his mother tongue?”
Three days later they allowed her one family visit to in the detention center for a few minutes, but this was filmed too. Fatemeh Davand was held at the center for a total of 17 days before they transferred her to the women’s ward at Urmia Prison. “In the detention center there was a camera in my cell as well the toilet,” she says. “I was afraid that they were watching me on this one; I ate as little as I could so that I didn’t have to use the toilet much. My situation was a little better in Urmia Prison. I was held there for three months and 23 days.”
In Urmia Prison, inmates are not separated by the categories of their crimes as is required in Iranian law. “There were a number of female political prisoners there,” says Ms. Davand. “I was cellmates with Baran Behzad [charged with working with the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)], Shanaz Sadeghifar [in connection with Kurdistan Freedom Party] and her young daughter Ayenaz Zare. Sanur Khalifani [accused of connections with ISIS], Halimeh Khalifani [captured in Syria] and Sara Ghezelbash [charged with insulting the Supreme Leader] were in other cells. Since then Sara and Halimeh have been pardoned and released.”
During her time in prison, Davand was allowed to speak to her children on the phone every day but only once was she permitted to see them face-to-face.
On February 6, Davan was tried at Branch 103 of Bukan Criminal Court for “disrupting public peace and order by participating in riots”. Judge Mehdi Taghizadeh sentenced her to five months in prison and 30 lashes.
On March 25, 2020, the government granted some prisoners leave of absence because of the coronavirus epidemic. Davand was released on a bail of one billion tomans (US $240,000). This was an enormous sum she and her husband could never have afforded by themselves, but friends and family helped them scrape it together.
“I Dare Not Appeal the Sentence”
On May 12, Davand was tried at Branch 1 of Mahabad Revolutionary Court for the separate charge of “assembly and collusion against national security”, and was sentenced to five years in prison by Judge Javad Gholami.
“Even this court acquitted me of the ridiculous charge of connections to opposition groups,” she says. “For me, with three children, a five-year sentence just for participating in protests — something that is our right — is just too much. But I did not appeal.”
Davand’s lawyer Behrouz Kia, who she said “had no financial expectations” insisted that she should appeal but Davand was too afraid that going before the Court of Appeal could make it worse. “For two hours I explained to the court that these charges were lies and I was protesting against poverty – and I was sentenced to five months in prison. Then, I was sentenced to five years. How can one hope that the appeals judge in Urmia will treat me any better? I’m not afraid of prison and I’m only worried about my children, but this too shall pass.”
On Thursday, August 6, Fatemeh Davand submitted herself to Urmia Central Prison. She is inside now.