Iran Hijab Protest turns into torture site: Arman doesn’t sleep much anymore.
“In my nightmare, I see someone following me in the dark,” he said. “I am alone and no one helps me.”
He says his life changed forever in early October when he was arrested on the streets of Tehran for taking part in anti-government demonstrations and then tortured for four days by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – known as Sepah.
The abuse was psychological and physical, he told, including electric shocks, controlled drowning and mock executions.
The 29-year-old says he was held in solitary confinement and occasionally beaten before being placed in a room with about two dozen other protesters, including a woman with cuts to her face and neck who said she was sexually assaulted by security. forces.
Arman, whose name has been changed for his safety, says he saw an IRGC emblem on a table and again on the uniform of one of the men guarding him – but that he doesn’t know exactly where in Tehran the center was because he was Tasered and passed out before being taken away .
In order to leave the detention center, Arman claims he was forced to sign a false confession that he had received money from the US, UK and Israeli governments to create “chaos” in Iranian society. He was then told that if he engaged in further “activism” he and his family would be persecuted and arrested, he said. But the involvement and extremism of Iranian government is apparent and the torturing of women protestors by government authorities continues in various regions.
What Arman claims happened to him and those allegedly detained by his side is not an isolated incident. Instead, it is part of a proven playbook used by the Iranian government to persecute, torture and imprison protesters in its ongoing campaign to suppress political dissent.
In the months following Iran’s nationwide demonstrations in 2019, which were sparked by the government’s sudden decision to raise the price of gas by 50% but escalated into calls for the downfall of the Islamic Republic and its leaders, widespread cases of torture and thousands of arrests were documented.
As Iranians from all walks of life unite to fight for their civil rights — in protests first sparked by the death of a young woman in religious police custody last month — it appears to be repeating itself.
“We are now in the worst period of our lives. Full of stress. Full of fear,” the 24-year-old protester told CNN. She says several of her friends were tortured – and that one of them was also sexually abused – after they were detained by the IRGC in Rasht last month.
“Nothing has happened to me yet and I managed to escape. But it’s possible at any moment,” she explained during a video call about the incident, with her face covered to protect her identity.
CNN spoke with nearly a dozen Iranians who shared firsthand accounts of torture during the 2019 and 2022 protests, or who had loved ones die or disappear while in authorities’ custody.
Some of those affected shared photos documenting their injuries and court records detailing the criminal charges they face; others shared only their stories, which CNN cannot independently verify.
CNN contacted both the Iranian government and its permanent mission to the United Nations about the accounts of torture and arbitrary detention detailed by protesters, but has yet to receive a response.
“There was rape, torture”
Farhad, a 37-year-old father of two, intimately understands the personal cost of speaking out against Iran’s government, but that hasn’t stopped him from joining the demonstrations, which have been going on for more than a month and appear to cut across Iran’s social and ethnic divides.
During protests in November 2019, he said he saw several of his friends dying in the streets of Tehran after being shot by security forces in what would be a four-day nationwide rampage to silence dissent that would eventually leave more than 300 civilians dead. according to Amnesty International.
It wasn’t until December 2, after the bloodshed, that Farhad said plainclothes officers kicked in his door in the middle of the night to arrest him for his participation in the demonstrations.
Farhad, whose name has also been changed for his safety, says the IRGC used footage of the protests from the BBC – which he has since shared with CNN – to identify him, effectively weaponizing media coverage of the rally to hunt down participants.
He claims that he was tortured for a total of 16 days and, like Arman, he knew that the Tehran detention center where he was being held was run by the IRGC because one of its walls had an inscription with his distinguishing features.
According to Farhad’s account, several hundred people were detained and tortured alongside him. He can still hear their screams.
“Hundreds of people were imprisoned with me. There was a bed, people were tied to it and tortured. There was rape, torture with electric shocks and boiling water … hanging people from the ceiling to beat them,” he told CNN.
Farhad’s last memory of his time in that dark room is when plainclothes policemen hung him and beat him unconscious before throwing him into the back of a car, taking him to an unknown location and dumping him on the side of the road.
A few days later, he woke up in a medical clinic near his home in Tehran, he said. He doesn’t know how he got there, but cites an extended family member with ties to the Iranian government as a possible reason why his life was spared.
“My teeth broke; my lip was completely ripped off. Because my bleeding was so bad, [I think] they didn’t expect me to survive.”
CNN reviewed photos of Farhad’s injuries and the scars he lives with today.
Farjad has since left Tehran with his immediate family for their safety, but says he still receives calls at night from Iranian authorities threatening to rape his wife and kill his children, and that his bank account is regularly frozen.
He also claims that in the months following his torture, his national identity card – the primary document used to access essential services in Iran – was erased from the system.
Despite the ongoing risks to his life and livelihood, Farhad’s commitment to the current demonstrations is unwavering.
“My country and my people are suffering. The government of the Islamic Republic is oppressing in the name of religion, I no longer see people [being] killed for their faith,” he said.
State sponsored hackers
CNN spoke with four other protesters who were tortured in custody and later jailed for taking part in anti-government demonstrations in 2019 — including a young single mother who says she had to put her son in parental care so he could serve. prison and a 43-year-old father of two from Shiraz who claims to be suffering from acute post-traumatic stress disorder after spending 48 days in solitary confinement.
Their accounts all share striking similarities, most notably the ongoing harassment they say their families face from Iranian authorities via fake social media accounts, late-night phone calls, and local informants whom they believe monitor them for the IRGC intelligence service.
Amin Sabeti is an Iranian cyber security expert who has spent years studying hacking groups with ties to the Islamic Republic, including the IRGC-affiliated ‘Charming Kitten’ group, which was recently sanctioned by the US government for “malicious cyber-enabled activities, including ransomware and cyber-espionage.”
According to Sabeti, who is based in the UK, state-sponsored hackers have a tried and tested method in place to “dox protesters” once they’ve infiltrated their online groups using fake accounts, which involves “sharing photos of them on Twitter, Instagram or Telegram and asking others to share information about them,” while pretending to be concerned for their safety.
“They used the same tactics in the November 2019 uprising,” Sabeti explained, which has led to more tech-savvy demonstrators identifying suspicious accounts and distributing warnings among their networks.
A history of torture
At Tehran’s Ebrat Museum – a repurposed former prison – dramatic displays on the atrocities carried out against Muslim clerics by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s police during the revolution have long been used as a propaganda tool to celebrate the “freedoms” won in the Islamic Republic.
And yet, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who was himself imprisoned in the 1970s during Pahlavi’s reign – and his security apparatus, have a decades-long legacy of also using mass arrests and torture to control and silence political dissidents – the hypocrisy of which is not lost on protesters today.
The current movement – led and inspired by women – has united Iranians across generations, in what is shaping up to be the biggest threat the regime has faced to date. Notably, it has also survived weeks of rolling internet outages and violent crackdowns.
But as chants of “woman, life, freedom” continue – a rallying cry that’s come to encompass the daily violence and control Iranian women are rising up against – more than 1,000 people have been arrested, according to state news IRNA.
Looking ahead, analysts and exiled activists CNN spoke to are fearful that the authorities will ultimately employ whatever violent tactics they deem necessary to once again, regain some semblance of control.
Already, almost two dozen children – some as young as 11 – were killed by Iran’s security forces during demonstrations in September, according to Amnesty International, in a chilling reminder that no life will be spared. Meanwhile, Iran’s Education Minister Yousef Nouri confirmed last week that student protesters are now being detained in what he termed “psychological institutions,” run by the state.
None of the Iranians CNN spoke with were naive to the fact that their lives – and the lives of their families – are on the line as the uprising rages on, with most going to extreme lengths to protect their personal information online and avoid unnecessary risks while taking to the streets.
Arman still receives threatening phone calls and messages for his activism, but he says he won’t be deterred.
“They torture us, and they are lying to the world, to the international community … Iranians want freedom,” he said. “We don’t want dictatorship. We want to connect with the world.”