Iran: Protesters denied medical care and tortured to death in secret prisons

Left: Mahdi Zare displays the injuries inflicted by security forces during a protest he participated in. He was arrested and then killed after being tortured.
Left: Mahdi Zare displays the injuries inflicted by security forces during a protest he participated in. He was arrested and then killed after being tortured. © Observers

More than 19,000 people have been arrested since protests erupted in Iran in mid-September 2022. Human rights organisations say that dozens of them have been killed in secret detention centres. But security forces are trying to cover up these deaths by threatening family members into silence or staging the deaths as suicides.

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Beaten during protests, arrested, tortured and then denied medical treatment: This is how dozens of Iranians have lost their lives during the Islamic Republic's current wave of unrest, which some are calling the "Mahsa Revolution".

The protests began on September 16, 2022 after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed while in the custody of the brutal morality police. For months, protesters have been taken to secret detention centres operated by the entities involved in repressing the unrest: the Bassij (the armed branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), the VAJA (Iranian intelligence service) or ordinary police forces. 

The Iranian regime has tried to conceal protesters' deaths, threatening victims' families and even arresting some of them.

In this video, Mahdi Zare shows the injuries inflicted by security forces during a protest he participated in. The next day, he returned to protest, and was arrested and tortured. Released the next day in critical condition, he arrived at the hospital in a coma, and died a day later.

'Detainees have been "released" but in a critical condition because of the torture they suffered'

The "Committee for Monitoring Arrested Prisoners" is an initiative set up by Iranian human rights activists around the world to document arrests by Iranian security forces and monitor the status of detained protesters.

Our Observer Delaram (not her real name) is a member of this initiative:

We have documented at least 16 cases so far. These people were arrested and then killed in detention centres. We have another 12 cases that we are investigating. But there is no doubt that the actual number of deaths in these centres is higher than that. Most of these cases are people from the Kurdish region in western Iran, and most of them were killed in the detention centres belonging to the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

And the fact that we have found multiple unofficial prisons or, in other words, hidden detention centres all over Iran underlines the fact that there are certainly many more unsolved cases of detained and killed protesters.

We discovered these unofficial detention centres after interviewing protesters who were held there. Through these interviews, for example, we identified a new hidden detention centre in the Kolahdouz district of Tehran, which no one knew existed before.

According to our research and reports, there are three categories of protesters killed in these centres: first, there are the already injured protesters, most of whom were deprived of medical care in the detention centres before they died there. In some cases, these injured protesters were also tortured before they died. The second category are those who were not shot during their arrest, but lost their lives as a result of torture in detention. Finally, there are the detainees who have been "released" but in a critical condition because of the torture they suffered. They are taken to hospital by their families, but it is too late, and they die of internal bleeding.

I am thinking of the case of Shahriar Adeli. He was arrested by the VAJA on November 22 in Sardasht, a town in Iranian Kurdistan. He was released on bail on December 3 and his family immediately took him to hospital. But he died on December 9. The official cause of death was "cardiac arrest", but local human rights groups published photos of his body showing signs of severe torture.

A number of photos and videos online document the cases of torture and mistreatment in these Iranian detention centres. The FRANCE 24 Observers team has chosen not to publish them due to their graphic nature.

'The authorities first take the victims' bodies hostage'

Security forces systematically target detainees' families in order to silence them. Niki Mahjoub, an Iranian journalist working for the London-based channel Iran International has been in contact with many families of victims and prisoners. 

To silence the families, the authorities first take the victims' bodies hostage. The families must remain silent in order to receive their loved ones' remains. Otherwise, the authorities threaten to bury the body in a distant place before giving the family the location or, worse, they threaten to bury the body somewhere and never tell them where it is. Some families comply just to have a gravesite where they can grieve.

Iranian security forces refused to hand over the body of Hamed Salahshour to his family. He was killed in custody four days after his arrest during protests in Izeh on November 26. He was buried in a remote cemetery. On December 1, his family dug up the body and moved it to a cemetery in Izeh, his hometown, as shown in this video. The family says they saw signs of severe torture on his body.

Their system to terrorise families also includes death threats, such as, "Your other child, your wife, husband, sister, brother, boyfriend, etc. will suffer the same fate if you talk about what happened." In many cases, a family member is arrested to increase the pressure on them to keep quiet. 

'It continues with threats to relatives that they will be kicked out of college or their jobs if they speak up'

And then the security forces "remind" the families that they are watching them. Family members are summoned for questioning, their property is damaged, the graves of the victims are vandalised, threatening calls or text messages are sent to family members. Relatives, even cousins, are visited at home or at work and threatened personally. It continues with threats that they will be kicked out of college or their jobs if they speak up.

They put devastated families in a conundrum over honouring their deceased loved one or protecting others. It's natural that many of these families crumble under these unrelenting threats.

However, some families find the courage to speak out after a while. Social networks, especially Instagram, play an important role in this. They can explain step-by-step what happened to their loved one and other people's support encourages them to speak up and share the reality. 

'Iranian security forces stage a false scene to allege that the victim died in a totally unrelated circumstance'

Delaram, from the Committee for Monitoring Arrested Prisoners, told us more:

In many cases, Iranian security forces stage a false scene to allege that the victim died in a totally unrelated circumstance. For example, there is the case of Esmail Dezvar, who supposedly died in an accident while in detention, or Milad Khoshkam, who they claimed had jumped from a bridge. In another case, a box of pills was found next to the body of 16-year-old Iliad Rahmanipour, left dead in a park behind his home. The authorities claimed it was a suicide.

Niki Mahjoud said that in many cases, Iranian security forces put so much pressure on families that they agree to sign a statement saying that their relative died in an accident or by suicide and not in prison.

By arresting family members or openly hinting at the death of other family members, the security forces force the mother, father or other family members to sit in front of state television cameras and lie about the cause of death of those killed in prison, or force them to publish false accounts of the victim's death on social media.

Impunity for security forces

Raha Bahraini, from Amnesty International, insists that these practices are nothing new in Iran.

Amnesty International has documented at least 164 cases of inmates being killed in Iranian prisons between 2011 and 2021 as a result of torture or other ill-treatment, or the deliberate denial of medical care. And the declaration of baseless cause-of-death is as old as these killings. The most common untrue explanations are suicide, cardiac arrest, fighting among inmates or overdose. And absolutely no one has been held accountable for these grave human rights violations in Iran.

At least 476 protesters have been killed since the start of the unrest in Iran on September 16, according to the monitor Iran Human Rights