An Iranian protester recalls his arrest
“Attending a concert” – An Iranian protester recalls his arrest
“Come back Jafar! It’s safe now.” Never would he have thought, that the message might hide a trap, since it was coming from Naser, his trusted friend, who was asking him to return to the city after Jafar had ran away and got secure in a nearby village.
At a meeting held three days before the receipt of this message, in Mashhad’s central part, Jafar, Naser, and Reza had planned their protest for the following evening. Mashhad, like other 140 Iranian cities, has experienced many protests during the last few months, ever since the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16th.
Jafar was afraid of joining the crowd during daylight hours. The news of more than 450 deaths and thousands of arrests, scared him from joining the demonstrations. As a young man who just turned 21 last month, he does not consider himself a risk-taker.
At the same time, he could not remain silent: a historical moment seemed to be sweeping the country, and he desperately wanted to be a part of it. A solution was soon found: he and a few of his friends decided to go out and write slogans and graffitis late at night.
This wasn’t the first time we were out. “Things happened the usual way, as they always did: “Down with the dictator” and “Woman, life, freedom” were written on some random walls”. By dictator, Jafar was referring to the Islamic clergyman Ali Khamenei, who has ruled Iran since 1989. The second phrase is the slogan of the current Iranian protest. “We wrote on about ten to twelve walls, then headed back home,” he told in a voice call after he was released from prison.
“As soon as Naser opened the door of the car, four men rushed out of nowhere and blocked his path.” I could hear fear in Jafar’s voice as he described what happened. Even after nearly two weeks, he still saw it playing out before him: “After we were done writing slogans, two motorbikes started chasing us. It was clear they were not police and they did not show us any identification, but because of their beards and their dark clothing, we figured they were Basiji. Those are typical attributes of this paramilitary volunteer militia. Naser was immediately arrested and we were asked to leave the car as well. Instead, I turned on the engine and fled in an instant,” explained Jafar, feeling a bit guilty for leaving his friend behind like that. However, it is apparent that he had no choice.
“I don’t want to boast about being brave, because I’m not! I was afraid of getting arrested. If you lived in Iran, you would understand why I wasn’t able to stay at home. This situation requires individuals to take action and I believed I could do that,” explained Naser. He asked me several times not to include his full name in the article, still scared of the consequences.
The death of Mahsa Amini affected everyone in the country. The protests that sparked from this event soon became far more than a call for women rights. “The only thing we want is to be able to live normally,” said Naser, recalling the death of the Kurdish-Iranian woman that took place three days after she was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s dress code.
Reza’s relatives lived in a village about 70 km away from Mashhad, so the two of them decided to move there as they were anxious about returning home after the arrest of Naser. For three days Jafar lived in Reza’s village, until his friend called him and assured him that it was safe to come home. Naser told them they released him after a day and everything returned to normal. Trusting his friend, Jafar returned to Mashhad, while Reza remained with his relatives in the village, but within a few hours of his arrival, Naser called him again to tell him that he had to meet with the prison officers, urging him to do so as soon as possible, as it would have been better.
“I was surprised that Naser did such a thing to us! It felt like he sold us out, but I tried to understand him. If I had been scared or threatened in prison, I might have done the same”. Jafar soon figured out what drove Naser to sell them out: as soon as he entered the prison, the guards were very harsh with him. “After they wrote down my name and registered me, they put eye shades over my eyes and handcuffed me. They pushed me into an empty shed and I stayed there with other boys and men,” he explained.
He couldn’t say the exact number, as his eyes were closed, however, he estimated that about 30-40 people were there at once. “As it was an official prison, wounds on our bodies would have been a sign of torture, which is prohibited in this kind of facilities. However, this did not prevent them from torturing us in other ways. In other words, they did many things to make us suffer and confess our crimes,” he said in despair. Since recalling the events is still too painful for him, he didn’t want to explain this part in detail. “They would throw cold water at us and then leave us in the open for an hour to freeze! They invented crazy tactics to compel young men like me to confess,” he said.
Moreover, Jafar said that they were using psychological torture as well: “They kept lying to us about our release date, telling us false information about what was happening outside and about our families”. Jafar’s curly hair being shaved on his first day was also one of the difficult moments he had to face. “They didn’t shave everyone’s hair, but mine did get shaved on the first day. There’s no doubt it was because it was obvious I loved my hair and worked hard to make it look that way,” he added.
Jafar was transferred to a general prison after a week. During his first sight of the “real” prison, he described it as “very crowded” with over 200 people at once. Even though it was called a prison, it was quite different from what he had expected. It was a very large hall divided into several sections, all of them covered under one large ceiling. “There were triple bunk beds, but they had already been occupied by people who had arrived there long before us. I, along with many other newcomers, needed therefore to find a place on the floor to nap.”
Jafar’s days in prison began with a lighter: the first cigarette was lit in the early morning, and prisoners had to protect it until nightfall, as it was difficult to find another flame. In order to ensure that everyone had the opportunity to smoke throughout the day, at least one cigarette had to be smoked at all times.
“There was a narrow space where we could smoke. Prisoners called that part of the prison “The Road”,” according to Jafar. “Not only did they smoke there, but they also argued and fought there!”
The majority of the people present inside Jafar’s prison had been arrested during the protests, but there were also a few criminals among them. Other prisoners told him that there were informants among them, so they couldn’t trust each other and talk freely about politics. News, however, continued to flow.
Jafar heard that prisons around Iran have set up new protest sections and hired employees from different cities to run them. Interestingly, Jafar told that the protest section employees in Mashhad were from Tabriz, which is on the other side of Iran. This is to ensure that they can better control the prisoners, since they have no personal connections to the area and won’t therefore risk to find their relatives as prisoners of the facility they work at.
The last question I asked Jafar was what he missed most when he was imprisoned. “Music” was his answer. “I really wanted to hear music of any kind, any harmony.” He remembers one occasion in which different prisoners got together: “At first some were imitating politicians and singers, but the gathering soon turned into a public performance! Many prisoners made noise by tapping their blankets, pillows, among other things. There were some who sang and some who danced! The whole time I was just happy to hear something close to music!”