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Iran: Detainees complain of harassment and humiliation during strip-searches

Threats of sexual violence are commonplace in detention, according to female activists arrested at demonstrations
A woman walks past an Iranian flag painted on a wall in a street in Tehran on 10 April 2023 (AFP)

In the wake of protests over the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, following her arrest for "inappropriate hijab" in Tehran, many Iranian women have publicly disobeyed laws enforcing the wearing of the headscarf.

In response, panicked officials have attempted to enforce new regulations on women's dress codes to keep up the appearance of women's "modesty" that has been a staple of the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.

However, for women held in detention by the security services, it is another story - numerous detainees have recounted intrusive and humiliating strip searches as well as sexual harassment at the hands of police and officials.

"I felt so embarrassed. With my hands, I tried to cover the private parts of my body," said Mojgan Keshavarz, a women's rights activist, recalling being strip-searched while detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 2019.

She had been arrested after defying the obligatory hijab law on International Women's Day, offering white roses to women in Tehran's subway.

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"The guard shouted: 'Turn to me and take your hands off. Now, open your legs and do the bodyweight squat.'"

The female guard told her she needed to repeat the act several times in order to "make sure you've not hidden a small cell phone in your vagina".

Keshavarz was kept in solitary confinement in Tehran's Vozara detention centre and the "dangerous prisoners'" ward in Qarchak prison before being handed to the IRGC intelligence service.

She was first forced to remove all her clothes in a room called "the camera section".

"They took me to the camera section and told me I had to get naked to take photos of my body. I asked them why, and they said: 'Because when you leave here, you can't claim you were tortured,'" said Keshavarz, who ended up serving three years in prison.

'This is what you want'

Keshavarz made these comments in a series of tweets that went viral on Persian social media on Sunday.

Immediately after, other former female detainees, women's rights activists, and a prominent actress also began sharing their experiences of strip searches.

Two former female detainees who spoke to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity confirmed that security forces and intelligence officers widely used sexual harassment and threats of rape as a means of putting dissidents under pressure during their detention.

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"The riot police arrested me, and before putting me in the police van, a [male] plain clothes officer, who seemed to be the commander in the group, approached and began a body search during which he brutally touched my breasts and sexual organs," said one protester who was arrested in October during the widespread anti-government protests that followed Amini's death.

"When I shouted at the officer to stop him touching my body, he said: 'Don't complain, this is what you want. This is what you are demonstrating for on the streets.'"

After a month of pre-trial detention, she was released, and in court she was cleared of all charges.

Another female detainee who spoke to MEE was arrested in late September and was released from prison after the February general amnesty offered by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

She said she faced rape threats several times during the interrogations and in the corridors leading to the interrogation rooms.

"It was a daily routine to hear the interrogators saying 'tartibet ro midim,'" she said, referring to a term in Farsi meaning to "get someone done" but is colloquially used to say forcing someone to have sexual intercourse.

"Once blindfolded, a guard took me to the interrogation room. In the corridor, before entering the room, I heard the voice of one of my interrogators, laughingly saying, 'No one has yet got her done? Let's do it here; there are no cameras.'"

The protests that were sparked off by Amini's death were the largest to engulf Iran in years, but a combination of mass arrests, executions, and threats has seen them largely fizzle out.

'I heard the voice of one of my interrogators, laughingly saying, "No one has yet got her done? Let's do it here; there are no cameras"'

- former female detainee

According to the Norway-based organisation Iran Human Rights, 278 people have been executed this year alone.

A lawyer who has defended several political activists in recent years explained to MEE that the threat of rape was not only limited to female detainees - he said young men arrested during last year's demonstration also reported facing similar threats.

"Hundreds of complaints about sexual harassment and rape threats have been documented, and even some of the cases were reported to the judiciary system, but the system has no appetite for listening to these complaints," said the lawyer, who asked for anonymity.

"Strip search and touching sexual organs are the methods that the prison guards and the IRGC intelligence officers have systematically used to break the resistance of women prisoners.

"However, last year it was used on an unprecedented scale because of the large number of women arrested during the protests."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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