It’s a terrible story and sadly not a unique one. Following the post-election demonstrations, the Iranian authorities cracked down with astonishing severity on anyone perceived to be involved in criticism of the status quo. Thousands of people were arrested: students, lawyers, journalists, trade unionists and human rights campaigners were all targeted. Hundreds of people were subsequently tried unfairly in mass “show trials”, some of which led to executions. But as more people were released from detention, the details of abuse, including rape of both men and women, were repeated again and again.
The Iranian authorities acknowledged that some abuse took place in the Kahrizak detention centre – where former detainees emerged with stories of rape, torture and appalling conditions leading to at least three deaths – but that example aside, the Iranian government’s reaction has been to dismiss and repress all other allegations of abuse.
Ebrahim Sharifi, a 24-year-old student from Tehran, was seized by plainclothes security officials in June 2009 and held incommunicado for a week before being released. He told Amnesty that he was bound, blindfolded and beaten prior to being raped. He also endured severe beatings and mock executions.
When he tried to file a judicial complaint, intelligence agents allegedly threatened him and his family. The case judge said: “Maybe you took money [to say this]… [and] if you go through with this, you will surely pay for it in Hell.” The investigating Judicial Committee announced that his allegations of rape were fabricated and politically motivated.
Two members of the government-supported Basij militia, now in the UK, have also told the British media that they witnessed systematic rape on men and boys in a park in the southern city of Shiraz. Other Basij members had forced young men and possibly boys into a series of shipping containers in the park, where the rapes took place. The two complained, including to their superiors, which led to them having to leave Iran.
Women in detention have also frequently reported sexual insults and threats of rape being used against them. Zahra Kamali, a student arrested in July 2009, told Amnesty International that her interrogators taunted her with wanting to sleep with other men, and touched her breasts. She said that her then cellmate, a women’s rights activist held with her was treated the worst: “She told us that her interrogators had attached cables to her nipples and given her electric shocks. She was so ill she would sometimes faint in the cell.”
It is women who remain discriminated against more generally in Iranian law – a woman’s testimony in court is worth half that of a man’s, for example. Women’s rights campaigners continue to be harassed, intimidated and arrested. Amnesty is campaigning for Ronak Safazadeh, a women’s rights campaigner jailed in 2009 for five years on what appear to be trumped-up charges.
All acts of rape are grave abuses of human rights. But the abuse takes on an added significance when the rapist is a public official. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on torture states that rape constitutes torture when it is carried out by public officials or happens at their instigation. International and regional human rights bodies have ruled that rape by officials always amounts to torture, and cannot be considered to be simply a common criminal act.
The use of rape as a form of torture (or as a weapon of war) is certainly not unique to Iran. But that does not mean these reports can be ignored. Greater international scrutiny of Iran’s human rights has been rebuffed by the government: it has not allowed some eight UN human rights rapporteurs to visit the country and has used UN meetings to deny reports of human rights violations.
The human rights situation in Iran has become so dire that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organisations last week called on the UN Secretary General to appoint his own special envoy to investigate and report on the situation in the country, and to issue a more comprehensive report on human rights in Iran.
All this will be of little comfort to those like Leyla, Ebrahim and Zahra mentioned above. But the international community must ensure, for their sake and for those of countless other Iranians, that the focus on Iran is not restricted solely to its nuclear plans but also to the human rights of its people.
Kate Allen is the UK Director of Amnesty International.