Iranian Women Prisoners Detail Torture: 'Death Was Like a Desire'

News & Politics

Thousands of Iranians took to the streets in 2009 as part of the Green Movement to protest a disputed presidential election. The government crackdown that followed included some women being imprisoned, tortured and raped. This report shares some of their stories. This report is a co-production with PBS NewsHour.


JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a rare look at dissent in Iran, including the abuse of female prisoners during and following the 2009 Green Revolution. That was when thousands took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest a disputed presidential election, before facing a violent crackdown by the government.

Our story is told through interviews recorded in secret with Iranian women. The correspondent's voice and the faces and voices of some of the women have been altered to protect their identities.

A caution: Some of the images and stories are disturbing.

CORRESPONDENT: It's been two years since the bloody days that followed Iran's disputed presidential election. I was there in the streets, along with hundreds of thousands of people.

During the uprising, known as the Green Movement, I witnessed horrific acts of suffering, including the death of Neda Agha Soltan. It was captured on video and posted on the Internet for the world to see. But I felt compelled to share some of the untold stories from that chaotic time.

WOMAN (through translator): When Neda died, all of Iran and the rest of the world knew. But when they were raping and torturing me, and putting out cigarettes on my body, nobody knew.

CORRESPONDENT: On a cold day this past winter, I met a 22-year-old woman I call Layla in a cafe. She was like any other vibrant, talkative girl, but I could see a deep sadness in her eyes. A month after the disputed election, Layla and several other women were randomly rounded up in the street by police who accused them of being part of the Green Movement.

WOMAN (through translator): When they arrested us and threw us in a van and beat us with clubs, they kept hitting us, and they verbally abused us. They took us somewhere. I didn't know where it was. The windows of the van were tinted.

CORRESPONDENT: She said she was taken to a secret prison.

WOMAN (through translator): When the guard was shaving my hair, he was purposely shaving in a way that would cut my skin very painfully. And he left a little patch of hair in front just to bother me. I wasn't sitting in a chair as he was cutting my hair. He was holding me from behind and rubbing himself against me.

CORRESPONDENT: Next, she was blindfolded and gagged. Then, with her hands tied behind her back, she was dragged into an interrogation room. After being questioned for only a short time, Layla says her interrogator became physical with her.

WOMAN (through translator): I was scared to death. The first thing he did was lick my face with his tongue. Then, he started touching my bra and all over my body. I was crying, "Please, please don't. I am innocent. I'm a virgin."

He said, "No, you are not a virgin anymore."

Then he raped me. After he raped me, he urinated on me, on my whole body.

CORRESPONDENT: Layla said her torture didn't end there.

WOMAN (through translator): Then I heard the sound of the whip in the air, and then felt it on my body. Then he untied my hands and he started caressing my arm like a lover. I felt something burning me just for a second. I screamed and he slapped me. He put out his cigarette on my left hand.

He put out another cigarette on my knee. I was still lost in the first and second pain when I felt another cigarette on my chest, another cigarette on back of my feet, another, another, and another, a pack of 20 cigarettes put out on my body.

CORRESPONDENT: Layla showed me the scars from the cigarette burns, but was too afraid to let them be filmed.

As the protests continued in the streets of Tehran, Layla continued to be brutalized in the secret prison for nearly two months.

WOMAN (through translator): I don't know how many times a day I was raped. It wasn't just one person. There were different people. The whole time I was there, I was telling myself, be strong, be calm. The end of this is death, and death will only take a moment.

Death was like a desire for me. I wanted to die.

CORRESPONDENT: Layla was released on several hundred thousand dollars bail, a price so high, that her parents had to sell the family business. She was never formally charged with a crime, and the secret police continue to monitor her.

Layla was one of several women who have talked with me over the past year, even though all of us can face retribution from the regime for speaking out. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, "Rape was routinely practiced as a matter of policy to intimidate young ordinary people from ever coming out to protest again."

Iranian TV released this footage of a detention center after the speaker of Iran's Parliament admitted that almost 100 cases of rape were filed. But the government later dismissed the charges.

In the mountains north of Tehran this past winter, I met up with a young woman I call Samira. She asked to meet me here because it's one of the few places young people can go and not be spied on. Samira is a rap singer and uses her music to give voice to those who cannot speak out.

WOMAN (through translator): What I could do was write about it, what I had seen, and be the voice for the people who are dead or imprisoned.

CORRESPONDENT: I first met her in the early days of the protests of 2009. She was an activist in the Green Movement, and had just seen a young man gunned down in the street next to her.

WOMAN (through translator): I went to the streets to demonstrate. We held back the Basiji militia for two hours just by throwing stones. A man standing next to me with a mask on his face, I had given him some stones just a few minutes before. He fell down and blood exploded out of the middle of his forehead. I was shocked. Then somebody shouted that it was a direct shot.

CORRESPONDENT: What Samira saw wasn't unusual. Countless numbers of protesters were shot by the Basiji militia.

Parvin Fahimi is the mother of one of those victims. She's the only woman I interviewed who wanted to be identified.

PARVIN FAHIMI, mother (through translator): I can't understand it, really, why my child, who went out for a civil protest -- which was his right to ask, what happened to my vote? And he get a bullet as his answer.

CORRESPONDENT: Fahimi's son Sohrab has become one of the famous martyrs of the Green Movement.

PARVIN FAHIMI (through translator): The regime actually wanted to kill our children. It makes me sad that they don't realize these could be their own children.

CORRESPONDENT: She says that, even though the street protests have quieted down, the Green Movement is still very much alive.

WOMAN (through translator): This is an angry silence. And they shouldn't think, if the people are quiet, it means everything is finished. No, the tornado is coming after calm and peace.

CORRESPONDENT: Layla, the woman who was tortured and raped, agrees.

WOMAN (through translator): I am totally Green. If I don't wear Green clothing, it's because I don't want to go back there. But, in my heart, in my brain, I am Green, even in my blood. If I wasn't Green, I wouldn't have come in front of the camera to tell my story.

CORRESPONDENT: Samira, the rapper, says too many people have suffered too much to return to the way things were. She sings: "Captive and prisoners behind the dark walls, we know our destiny to freedom. We, the caged birds, sing the song of flight together, solid as a row of cypress, dedicated to the soil of Iran. Tomorrow's green sunrise belongs to us."

MARGARET WARNER: As we said, that report was a co-production with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Watch the video here.

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