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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 7 February 17, 2024

Of prisons and torture | Sukumaran C.V.

Saturday 17 February 2024, by Sukumaran C.V.


White Torture: Interviews with Iranian Women Prisoners
by Narges Mohammadi


When and how have prisons and torture originated among humans? What is the purpose of prisons in the so called civilized nations including ours? Prisons and torture mean nothing else but human right violations and both of them are there with us from time immemorial. Of course, the born-criminals and anti-social elements have to be imprisoned for the safety of the people who live peacefully. But the fact that people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. spent many years in prisons points to the reality that prisons haven’t originated to safeguard the peace and well-being of the people as there are no people who worked for peace as the Mahatma and Mr.King did.

Books like Mari Sandoz’s Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, Ward Churchill’s Since Predator Came, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dale Van Every’s Disinherited: The Lost Birthright of the American Indian which describe how the Native Americans to whom belonged the whole American continents have been eliminated en masse by the European settlers since 1492 through massacres, imprisonment and unimaginable ways of torture are very painful to read. But those books are not first person narratives.

Reading first person narratives about imprisonment and torture is a quite devastating experience. And I went through such an experience when I have read Narges Mohammadi’s Nobel Peace Prize (2023) winning book White Torture: Interviews with Iranian Women Prisoners.

Imagine you were imprisoned in a matchbox cell which is "two by two meters" without proper light to see around, without fresh air to breathe, without a bed to sleep on, and without knowing and hearing anything about the outer world. Imagine that when you want to urinate or defecate you have to press a button or put the coloured papers given to you under the door. Imagine you are blindfolded even when you are being taken to the toilet. And all these happen to you not because you are a dreadful criminal, but because you are a journalist or human rights activist or you dissent.

Narges Mohammadi was arrested and put in solitary confinement because she advocates women’s rights; she is the vice president of the National Council for Peace; she is also the vice president of, and spokeswoman for, the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC).

Narges says in the Preface of White Torture: "On 16 November 2021, I was arrested for the twelfth time and sentenced to solitary confinement for the fourth time in my life. I spent sixty-four days in confinement in Ward 209 of Evin Prison, run by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. This time I was found guilty because of the book you are holding in your hands—White Torture. They accused me of blackening the name of Iran across the world... I was illegally sentenced to eight years and two months in prison, and seventy-four lashes..."

The book consists of 13 first person narratives of the terrible experience of solitary confinement. The first narrative is of Narges herself, and the other 12 are her interviews with women prisoners. Each account is traumatic even to read. And to think about suffering such prison life is quite bone-chilling.

Narges was first imprisoned in 2001. She recounts her arrest and prison-life: "My husband, Taghi Rahmani, was arrested alongside members of the Council of Nationalist-Religious Activities and members of the Freedom Movement. Following these arrests, on 19 March 2001 we, the families of those arrested, protested against the illegal actions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corpse (IRGC) and the judiciary. Part of our activism included rallies in front of the judiciary, parliament and the UN office. We also conducted internal and external interviews referring to the responsible institutions. This is why Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court summoned me. An interrogator from the IRGC came. In one of the rooms of the Revolutionary Court he asked me a few questions about my interview, which was published in the newspaper he had brought with him. He then took me to Branch 26, where I was arrested....Then the interrogator took me out. We left through the back door of the Revolutionary Court and got in a Peugeot car. I was told to lower my head and they blindfolded me. We then drove through several streets before entering a different building... We left and then travelled a long distance in the car. Outside, the streets were very quiet. I got out, still blindfolded, and went in. I felt like we were inside a remote castle. I was taken to a prison ward and then to a small cell. It was the first time I’d been locked in a cell. What a strange environment; a small box without a window or the slightest way out. A very small skylight, up above my head, but almost no natural light entered... I had heard that cells were about the size of a human being with stretched hands... Now I was experiencing what I had heard and read about... I wondered how it was possible to treat a human being like that. What happens to the right to breathe, to walk, to go to the bathroom freely, to hear the voices of other people and talk to them? Being deprived of the most basic rights frightened me...When it was my turn to take a bath, a male prison guard came and gave me some shampoo and said I could take a shower. As when they took me to the toilet, he came and stood a few steps behind me... My arguments with the guards to get them further away from the toilet and bathroom were useless and I had to put up with the situation... There was fresh air time every other day. I was allowed to walk in the yard for two minutes. The courtyard was lifeless, engulfed by high walls and a ceiling with iorn bars, bereft of plants or trees. The bath was every other day. Going to toilet was limited to certain times. If you lit the signals for going to the toilet more than you were supposed to, the guards responded with aggression."

Reading the terrible situations Narges went through is more than enough to make us frightened. And reading the narratives of the others who went through more cruelties makes us shudder. Apart from the physical torture, solitary confinement in narrow cells itself is an insufferable torture which makes the victims afflicted with claustrophobia and fibromyalgia.

One of the 12 interviewees is the 60 year old Sedigheh Moradi who was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of moharebeh (’the crime of waging war against god and the state and enmity against god’) and links to anti-regime groups.

Moradi says: "I was fastened to a bed from the very first time I went for interrogation. They pulled my arms and legs and tied them. It hurt a lot. The cables hit the soles of my feet. My whole body trembled. I cried. It was as if I was dying...Suffering under interrogation and being beaten with cables is more tolerable than hearing the voices of others being flogged. I returned to my cell after having been flogged...There was a very young girl imprisoned two cells away from mine. I think she was seventeen or eighteen years old. Her name was Kajal. She’d endured a lot of torture. Two days later I heard she had been taken to be executed."

Hengameh Shahidi, journalist and women’s rights activist, is another interviewee. She says: "One night when I was asleep, maybe at about 3 in the morning, a female prison guard woke me up. I’d expected this. Because I was constantly threatened with execution. I really thought they were going to execute me, but they were only staging it. I was taken to a room with a rope and told that I would be executed if I didn’t confess to spying...I fainted out of fear."

The greatest irony is that the government agency that perpetrates such cruelties on the innocent people is called Revolutionary Guard Corps and the court which delivers verdicts of torturous imprisonment and summary executions is called Revolutionary Court!!

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