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Source: Washington Post

Feb 6, 2023

By Miriam Berger and Sanam Mahoozi 

The 35-year-old engineer in northern Iran tried to prepare himself for the agents he knew would come.When his home was raided in the fall, allegedly over an Instagram post he shared and his participation in anti-government protests, the man joined thousands of Iranians who have moved through the Islamic Republic of Iran’s prison system in recent months — part of a mass arrest-and-release campaign at the core of a sweeping crackdown.

Few emerge unchanged.

Four months into the uprising, many Iranians remain committed to the movement, which began in September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s hated “morality police.” But the mass detentions have taken a heavy physical and psychological toll on the people cycling through prison, and have scared some of them and their families into silence, according to interviews with seven Iranians recently let out of jail, five local and international rights groups, as well as Iranian doctors and lawyers in direct contact with people arrested after supporting the protests.

The government’s “main goal is to scare people as much as they can, maximizing fear … and keeping the maximum number of people under surveillance,” said the engineer from Karaj, near Tehran. Like everyone interviewed inside Iran, he spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Yet thousands of Iranians are also gaining experience standing up to authorities and navigating the prison system, which could become a grim asset for the decentralized movement.

“By arresting a lot of these young people, they just make the fear of getting arrested and tortured go away,” he continued. “Prisoners think to themselves, ‘I could resist their maximum pressure, so there is nothing anymore that can stop me in pursuing my rights.’”

Most of the others packed into prison with the man had had no previous experience with activism or arrests, he told The Post through a secure messaging app, between internet outages. The Post could not independently verify the stories shared by former detainees, but they are consistent with reports by other media and rights groups.

The engineer was eventually released on bail pending trial, but found little relief back home. He said he avoided protests, fearing what loved ones would go through if he was rearrested. And he was in poor health owing to a flu-like outbreak in prison, he said, and withdrawal from an unknown drug that he suspects authorities poured into strange-tasting tea or fruit juice he was made to drink an hour before interrogations, leaving him tired and disoriented.

He remains haunted by the psychological abuse he endured, and the violence he saw inflicted on others: “You bastards have gotten too spoiled,” he recalled his interrogators saying. “We should pull out your testicles and hang you from your behind so you learn to behave.”

Iran’s U.N. mission in New York did not respond to a request for comment regarding the allegations of abuse and forced drugging.

Waves of arrests

Some 20,000 people have been arrested, more than 500 killed and at least four others executed in the four months of nationwide unrest, according to the activist news agency HRANA. Precise figures are impossible to determine, as Iran does not systematically share this information and may retaliate against anyone who does, but rights groups say the scale of arrests is unprecedented.

Iran’s top prosecutor has pledged to “deal decisively” with demonstrators, branded as foreign agents and instigators by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Sunday, Khamenei reportedly approved an amnesty for thousands of prisoners — as he has done before to mark the anniversary of the 1979 revolution — though it was unclear how many of those detained for protest activities would be included.

Some of those arrested face the death penalty or long sentences. But a majority are eventually released, at least conditionally, often by paying a hefty bail or having a family member serve as a guarantor as they await trial, said Shiva Nazarahari of the Volunteer Committee to Follow Up on the Situation of Detainees, a network of activists.

“Physically, sexually, psychologically, detainees have been exposed to such hard conditions that when they leave, they have to deal with really deep traumas,” said Nazarahari, who was detained several times before fleeing Iran a few years ago.

While prison experiences vary, the fear of violence is a constant. “Beatings and tortures during and after arrests were a common and widespread occurrence,” a 39-year-old man in Tehran told The Post. During two months of detention, he spent time in solitary confinement and was denied medical care for injuries from his violent arrest, he said.

The engineer from Karaj wasn’t physically assaulted in jail, he said, but prison officials knew how to hurt him: They constantly threatened to arrest his friends and family if he did not do what they wanted. Cut off from the outside world, he was worried sick.

Struggling to cope

In the early days of the protests, doctors and lawyers inside and outside Iran set up networks to clandestinely aid the movement. From exile in California, brothers Arash and Kamiar Alaei, both doctors previously jailed in Iran, formed a telemedicine group to advise protesters cut off from medical care.

In one message Kamiar shared with The Post, a person wrote seeking help for a 25-year-old married man who was depressed after being in jail. They were worried, they wrote, “considering the suicide attempts and the deaths of some people after torture.”

From Ankara, Turkey, Iranian lawyer Musa Barzin works with a virtual legal aid group, Dadban, to offer counsel to arrested protesters. Most cases he’s worked on involve people younger than 25 who were detained for the first time at protests or after social media posts, he said, and “the emotional and psychological pain is high” when they return home.

Barzin spoke to a man whose 23-year-old niece expressed suicidal thoughts after her release, citing pressure from security forces to work as an informant. In another case, Barzin said, he counseled the mother of a 30-year-old woman in Tehran who was convinced that the security agents who repeatedly threatened to rape her in detention were coming for her. The woman had been held for one night after taking part in a protest. The Post could not independently verify these accounts.

“After release, you keep feeling that they are going to come and get you again right now,” said the 39-year-old man from Tehran. “You keep feeling that you are being watched because you are always watched when you are detained.”

Kamiar Alaei said people contacted him for help with wounds left untreated or other health conditions they developed in dirty, overcrowded jails. Some also reported feeling withdrawal-like symptoms, including extreme exhaustion, that they attributed to unknown drugs administered against their will, he said. One woman told him she had been forcibly injected with a syringe.

Two former prisoners interviewed by The Post said they received, or saw others being given, a range of substances either in pill or liquid form, sometimes ahead of interrogations or to quiet restive detainees.

The Post could not verify their claims, and concrete evidence is lacking, Alaei said, as Iranians recently released from jail do not have a safe way to undergo a blood or urine test. Drugging detainees with antipsychotics and addictive substances has become “very routine,” according to Hadi Ghaemi, director of the New York-based Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which has been tracking the practice in Iranian prisons for nearly a decade.

The new normal

Iran’s government appears to be betting that its steady crackdown will demoralize protesters and crush the uprising.

A 40-year-old political activist released in December after 61 days in prison told The Post he has stopped actively supporting the protests on social media. He has a family to care for. “There is practically no possibility for my activism under current conditions,” he said.

A 30-year-old law school graduate in Tehran, who spent 26 days locked up in October, observed that the arrests and executions “have scared many people and led to retreat, especially among the ones with less experience in activism.”

But others are undeterred.

“Despite the widespread repression and arrest, we try to continue protesting and fighting in different ways,” the law graduate continued.

Another man in his 30s, detained for three months after an Instagram post supporting protests and for his Bahai faith, which is banned in Iran, is no longer afraid of arrest, according to a family member, who spoke to The Post on his behalf as a safety precaution. He returned home depressed and in debt, as he was the household’s breadwinner, but reemerged stronger, they said.

“The worst thing that could happen, happened,” the family member recalled the man telling them. Prisoners, they said, had become “like heroes.”

“Unlike previous protests, a significant number of protesters who have been released, even the ones who are on bail, take part in protests,” said Rebin Rahmani, a member of the board of directors of the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network.

“The kind of fear security institutions used to create in previous waves by mass arrests, shootings, tortures and mass heavy verdicts has been defeated by people’s hope in fundamental changes.”

By Miriam BergerMiriam Berger is a staff writer reporting on foreign news for The Washington Post from Washington, D.C. Before joining The Post in 2019 she was based in Jerusalem and Cairo and freelance reported around the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa and Central Asia. Twitter

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