The Torture State

They kick them. They whip them. They rape them. In Iranian prisons, the regime is brutally torturing its own citizens. Here, more than a dozen survivors tell their stories.

The Torture State

They kick them. They whip them. They rape them. In Iranian prisons, the regime is brutally torturing its own citizens. Here, more than a dozen survivors tell their stories.

By Daniel Drepper, Bamdad Esmaili, Ben Heubl, Kristiana Ludwig, Faranak Rafiei, Dunja Ramadan, Carim Soliman, Nadja Tausche, Lea Weinmann; Illustrations by Stefan Dimitrov
February 2, 2023 - 13 min. reading time

Twitter is a fleeting medium. A few words can quickly get lost in the stream of news. But a tweet from Shahriyar Shams, 22, a student in Tehran, should stick in people’s minds: “If they claim that a so-called Shahriyar committed suicide, then I will not have committed suicide. If I die, it means I’ve been killed.”

Speaking by phone, Shams says that the security forces have already shown up at his door twice since the protests against Iran’s ruling regime began in September. He claims they beat him and hauled him off to jail. The first time, he had to stay there for more than three weeks. After his release, he posted a photo of himself standing on a street after dark, a slim young man in jeans and a T-shirt, with a tote bag in his hand. It’s meant to be a sign of life. The men show up at his door again on November 4, as Shams is in the middle of a tweet: “I’m being arrested.” Then they take him back to Evin, the large detention center in northern Tehran notorious for holding opponents of the regime and for its torture practices.

In recent weeks, journalists with the Süddeutsche Zeitung and German public broadcasters NDR and WDR interviewed more than a dozen people arrested in Iran after protesting against the regime. Almost all of them, Shahriyar Shams included, are still in Iran today. Their accounts shed light on the regime’s brutal crackdown on its own people, as it aims to quash nationwide protests that began in September after the arrest of Jina Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman, by the morality police for not wearing her hijab in exact accordance with regulations. Amini collapsed at a police station and died a short time later. Many Iranians believe Amini was beaten, although the authorities later claimed she died of a heart attack.

The interviews suggest that police stations and prisons in the country have become the sites of brutal violence. The detainees shared their accounts of beatings, kicking, whippings, electric shocks, rape and the involuntary administration of medication. They describe how their broken bones went untreated for days and how state officials tortured them psychologically – through intimidation, by belittling them, and through sleep deprivation and cold. The journalists sought to corroborate allegations through interviews with relatives and doctors, human rights organizations and a prison guard who worked in Iran until recently. There is considerable overlap and consistency between the stories, and they match up with publicly available information and geographic data. They also fit with prison conditions described by detainees in recent years – as well as with surveillance videos leaked from Evin Prison. It appears that officials aimed to break the protesters’ wills during their detention.

For Shams it was the cramped cells, above all, that made his time in prison unbearable. He claims to have been locked away with five others in a room that had only been designed to hold two people. Shams says he could barely stretch out enough to sleep, and that the toilet was located in the same room. “There wasn’t enough food,” Shams says. “We often thought we were going to die.”

Shams says the Iranian state accused him of being the ringleader of a group that disturbed the public order. He says he is also accused of spreading propaganda against the regime and untruths, both through his participation in demonstrations and his statements critical of the regime on Instagram and Twitter. Shams says he retained the services of a lawyer. “But one day, I came back from the interrogation and saw my lawyer sleeping in a cell” because, Shams says, the man had also been arrested.

Shams claims that guards took individual prisoners away on a regular basis for interrogation, during which many were subjected to abuse. “Mainly to coerce them to sign for something they didn’t do,” he says. Many, he says, received blows in the face in the process.

Victims were assaulted using rubber truncheons or stun guns

At the end of November, a few days after Shams’ release from prison, he posted a video on Twitter. It shows him standing in front of a wooden wall with his large glasses and a T-shirt printed with small skateboards and English words like “Cool” and “Skate.” He is pale, has a five o’clock shadow and his voice sounds soft. “At this moment, as I speak to you, many of us are unjustly in prisons,” he says. In the video, he says he is starting a week-long hunger strike, an act of violence against himself as a sign of resistance and against the massive use of force shown by the country in which he lives.

Sham’s account is consistent with the experiences described by many other victims following their stays in prisons or police stations throughout the country. Most claim they were blindfolded during the interrogations. One explained how he and his fellow prisoners had been forced to kneel for a day with blindfolds on. Anyone who moved was beaten, he says.

The prisoners interviewed consistently reported that people had been threatened with beatings, rape and with the death penalty during interrogations. They claim that women, in particular, had been insulted and sexually harassed. Most claim they had to listen or watch as fellow prisoners were beaten. “You heard the screams,” says one young man. “It was so you would get scared and admit everything.” He says prisoners were “put up against the wall and violently beaten by several people” or whipped with a hose.” Seven sources claim they were beaten, kicked and tasered. Others shared accounts from fellow prisoners about how they had been treated. Officials who had lied. About the mother, who had apparently died or been arrested, or the sister, who had been mistreated.

In three cases, former prisoners shared how their cellmates had described sexual violence by officers. They also claim that perpetrators tied victims to pieces of furniture and physically assaulted them using rubber truncheons or stun guns. Shams says he had also heard these accounts. He says a friend told him how men joked during interrogations about who was raping which woman and who would be next. Once, they heard a woman screaming loudly in the courtyard at Evin Prison. She said they had taken her 14-year-old daughter from the cell and raped her.

“With the new protests, we are now hearing more and more about rapes,” Atena Daemi says in a voice message. Daemi, a human rights activist, had herself been imprisoned in Evin for more than five years until her release in February 2022. “From what I am hearing from the prisons, the situation has deteriorated massively,” she says, claiming that this is the case in all prisons. In Iran, the majority of jails are under the control of the judicial authorities, but the intelligence service and the Revolutionary Guards have their own detention centers as well and the police also detain people for short periods. The detainees interviewed for this article were held in detention facilities of the police, the morality police, the secret service and the judiciary. Five were held at Evin Prison.

Evin Prison in Tehran is comprised of two large, gray building complexes. There had been reports of the disastrous conditions at the prison even before the current protests. In the summer of 2021, hackers managed to gain access to the prison’s surveillance cameras. The grainy footage provides a glimpse into the interior of the sprawling facility. One of the videos shows a guard repeatedly hitting an inmate and his colleagues kicking the detainee until he falls to the ground.

In another video, two men drag an emaciated inmate by the arms through the detention center, lugging him through several hallways and heaving him up a flight of stairs.

In another video, two men drag an emaciated inmate by the arms through the detention center, lugging him through several hallways and heaving him up a flight of stairs.

Amnesty International has analyzed a total of 16 video recordings that came out of Evin Prison. Seven of them show prison guards abusing prisoners. Three show prisoners attacking each other; and two show prisoners trying to harm themselves. The videos also make clear just how overcrowded the prison had already been before the protests began in autumn 2022 – and just how brutal the guards were.

It’s an icy cold January day in an undisclosed small town in Germany, in a television studio where the blinds are lowered and passersby in colorful down jackets are visible through a slit. A man sits on a chair in the middle of the room. Behind him, two spotlights shine so brightly they hurt his eyes. He wants to give an on-camera interview, but anonymously, with the video distorted to protect his child, who still lives in Iran. He says he worked in the country for more than 10 years as a prison guard, in several detention centers around the country, most recently in a major city. Until he fled a few weeks ago. His ID badge and his pay stub provide substantiating evidence of his identity.

Then he describes the torture room at the big-city prison. He says a metal bar had been attached to the wall, and that prisoners had been chained to it. The cabinet with the tools was located in the hallway where the guard sat. He lists them off: pepper spray, a baton, handcuffs, stun guns. He also has a photo on his mobile phone of a form the guards are supposed to fill out after whipping prisoners: the name of the person whipped, the number of blows. The detainee also had to confirm receipt of the punishment with a fingerprint. Bureaucracy, it seems, is a must, even in a country where the rule of law means little.

Before the protests, the guard says, violence was used against inmates when they violated prison rules. But he says that wasn’t the case when the first protesters arrived in prison this fall. “With the protesters, they just wanted to make things bad for them, so they were tortured,” he says. The guards were to show “no mercy” according to instructions given by the prison administration. He says that everything possible was done to torment the protesters. He claims families were not informed, that people had to sleep in threadbare prison uniforms in cold rooms, on the concrete floor next to their own feces. “They were shivering,” he says, “their teeth were clattering and they screamed: ‘We’re cold!’”

The prison guard says that, at some point, he came under pressure himself. He had sympathized with the protests and expressed that sentiment on social media. His supervisor called him in and gave him a warning. He says he couldn’t take the double standard any longer, and that’s why he left the country.

Just one post on Instagram can get you arrested

The detainees, who were all arrested after the protests, universally described in similar terms how the Iranian regime systematically tracks and evaluates citizens’ communications. They all say that their mobile phones and laptops were taken away from them, often at the time of their arrest. They say they were threatened and tortured into revealing their passwords. After that, they claim, their messages to friends and families and their statements made on social media were used against them. Officials had presented one woman with pictures of her relatives that had been taken at a demonstration in Berlin critical of the regime.

Research by Hengaw, a human rights organization, suggests that people are fairly often imprisoned because of statements made on social media. Staff at the organization list several such cases, including those of two singers who offered their support for the protests on Instagram. Officials arrested both immediately afterward. Videos keep emerging on social media of the brutal arrests of men and women on the open street. In many of the videos circulating, women without hijabs are brutally loaded into vans, pulled by their hair, arms or legs. In one video, three people are seen pulling a woman into a white van with the help the kind of pole used by animal control officers. Individual videos of unarmed citizens being beaten up by security forces in the middle of the street also provide evidence of the regime’s willingness to resort to violence.

In a phone call from Iran, a 15-year-old girl talks about how she and a friend mingled with protesters after guitar lessons in October. She says militia members took them to the morality police. While the girls were blindfolded, officers used an object to beat young men, she says. After that, they also kicked and tortured her with electric shocks. She says she was also questioned and insulted. “When we got home, my right leg was completely blue,” she says. She still had flyers from the demonstration in her bag, but she was so scared that she ate them. The girls were allowed to leave after four hours. “They are playing with young people’s minds,” her father says. He says his daughter cried every day for a week and hasn’t played any guitar since.

Shahriyar Shams says he knows many people who, after being released, have been contemplating suicide. “It’s because they have hit a dead end or are under pressure” because they are not protected by those around them or people actively distance themselves from them. “For many of us, suicide is the only way out,” he says. Many of the people interviewed in the reporting of this article say they are experiencing mental problems, feelings of stress or depression. Some said they needed sedatives or treatment to process what they experienced in prison, even if they were only there for a few days.

American physician Pardis Irannejad is active with an international network of doctors seeking to help injured Iranians after protests over the internet. Speaking by phone, she describes cases in which people have undergone severe change after incarceration or committed suicide. In some cases, she says, this happened very suddenly, without families noticing any signs of depression beforehand. She and her colleagues thus suspect that detainees are being administered drugs that have an effect on their psychological well-being. Three detainees say they had to take pills under supervision.

When asked how he is doing today, Shams talks about his first stay in prison, which was long before the current protests. That was in 2017. He had been 18 at the time and had to spend a year in jail. He had been accused of disseminating propaganda. He says he was often beaten and that bones in his face were smashed. That he can no longer see well out of his left eye. Since then, he has had a different relationship with violence. “I’ve kind of learned to deal with it,” he says.

“They will not stop at anything. No one feels safe.”

In Germany, the government is aware of the conditions in Iranian prisons. A spokesperson for Germany’s Foreign Office says the terrible experiences reported by the individuals in question are consistent with reports the ministry is also familiar with. An internal ministry situation report states that although torture is officially banned in Iran, it is “not only tolerated but sometimes ordered” in prisons “in political cases.” In the case of political prisoners, it states, it is “common.” The report also states that criminal prosecution in the country is characterized by its “arbitrariness.” In the current protests, human rights organizations believe that at least 19,000 protesters have been detained and more than 500 have been killed.

Iran’s streets have grown quieter. It’s possible the brutality is working.

The European Union has already adopted sanctions against high-ranking regime officials on several occasions, most recently against the minister of youth and sports and the leader of the morality police. But contrary to the hopes of many in the protest movement, the Revolutionary Guards have not been placed on the terror list. The Foreign Office says only that further measures are being considered “on an ongoing basis.” The Iranian Foreign Ministry and the Iranian Embassy in Germany did not answer requests for comment for this article.

“They will not stop at anything,” Azhin Shekhi of Hengaw says by telephone. “No one feels safe.” The human rights organization has documented numerous cases of torture and also deaths in recent months. Many Iranian citizens would like to continue protesting, but “there is a lot of pressure,” he says. A prison stay also creates a huge financial burden for the families. The majority of the detainees interviewed for this story were only released from prison on excessively high bails. At more than 20,000 euros, they are often far higher than the average annual salary in Iran. Many are still awaiting trial following their imprisonment. They live with the fear of having to go back to prison. The first death sentences have also been issued. In December, the rulers in Tehran summarily executed four young men who had taken part in the protests. At least 17 others have been sentenced to death. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office, at least one is a woman.

Iran’s streets have grown quieter in recent days. It’s possible the brutality is having an effect. There are almost no more protests in Tehran.

It is only in Zahedan, the capital of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, that thousands still took to the streets every Friday in December and January.

It is only in Zahedan, the capital of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, that thousands still took to the streets every Friday in December and January.

Many members of the Baluch live here, a minority that has been the subject of discrimination by the regime. Five of the more than a dozen former prisoners interviewed for this article said they would take to the streets again. One of the women interviewed has since left Iran.

Many families want to protect their children and have stopped allowing them to go to protests, says Shahriyar Shams. But he says that he continues to protest. “We’re just going from a small prison to a big one,” he says. Even if he is free again now, he says he will never be free in Iran.

Editing Karin Steinberger, Lena Kampf
Digital Design Stefan Dimitrov
Translator Daryl Lindsey