February 22, 2024

Women’s rights activists and human rights researchers report increasing use of torture and sexual violence by Iranian authorities against protesters, particularly within the prison system.

“Since Jina Amini [the Kurdish name for Mahsa Amini] was murdered … we are hearing of a lot more abuse against women,” said Rubar, a commander in the Kurdish militia Parti Azadi Kurdistan (PAK), or Kurdish Freedom Party, from her base in the autonomous region of northern Iraq.

Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman of Kurdish descent, died in police custody in September last year after being arrested by Iran’s morality police for suspected violations of the country’s dress code for women.

Authorities claimed she died of a heart attack in custody, while witnesses alleged she was beaten to death. Amini’s death ignited a nationwide protest movement, surpassing previous waves of dissent against the Islamic Republic in scale.

PAK, a Kurdish separatist party advocating for independence in Iran’s western provinces (referred to by PAK as Rojhilat), claims to have over 1,000 active fighters, including many women. While most members are based in northern Iraq, PAK also reports having members in Iran, specifically in the Western Azerbaijan province.

Iranian authorities increasingly using sexual violence against protesters

Two women from Western Azerbaijan, Awrisha and Jilamo, now members of PAK, spoke exclusively to The Media Line, alleging that authorities are increasingly using sexual violence against protesters.

Jilamo told The Media Line that after participating in street protests post-Amini’s death, she was “identified by the religious police.” Fearing imprisonment and potential abuse, she decided to flee, informing her family of her decision.

“I also feared being sent to [Urumieh] prison; my cousin, who had been imprisoned there, burned herself to death after her release due to the shame of what she endured inside,” Jilamo added.

She further added, “I’ve heard of numerous women who died by suicide after being tortured and raped in custody, regardless of their age.”

Amnesty International, having documented numerous abuse cases within the Iranian prison system including denial of life-saving medical care, reports an increasing body of evidence indicating coordinated and top-down ordered torture and abuse of women.

“We have an ongoing investigation into the use of sexual violence within the prison system,” Nassim explains, adding, “We plan to make the determination later if we believe this is ‘systematically’ or not, but irrespective of our determination on this, one thing we are seeing and have been seeing is the ‘systemic immunity’ from prosecution for those who have carried out and order torture, be that sexual or nonsexual.”

One such detention center is Urumieh Central Prison, a facility where Amnesty has documented abuse and a place at which Awrisha and Jilamo dreaded being detained.

Rebin Rahmani from the Kurdistan Human Rights Network disclosed to The Media Line his “direct contacts with prisoners in facilities including Urumieh,” where authorities are reportedly employing increasingly abusive tactics.

While cases of sexual abuse weren’t documented, Rahmani notes via Telegram, “Some released detainees, particularly children, reported verbal threats of sexual abuse following their arrest.”

A common finding of the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, aligning with Awrisha and Jilamo’s accounts to the Media Line, is the increasing targeting of protesters’ family members by authorities.

“Families of detained protesters are under immense pressure from authorities and security agencies,” says Rahmani, adding, “They’re threatened against contacting international human rights organizations and media. Last month, over 30 family members of slain Kurdish protesters, who visited Jina Amini’s grave to honor her, were arrested upon returning home.”

In response to nationwide protests after Jina Amini’s death, the US and several Western countries imposed a broad spectrum of new sanctions against the regime, targeting the Iranian religious police and security forces specifically.

Although the sanctions have effectively isolated Iran and condemned its human rights abuses, PAK members claim they haven’t halted the core activities of Iran’s intelligence services and officials.

“The sanctions have suffocated people,” Jilamo explains. “Many are nearing starvation, while those in power still access food and resources.”

Awrisha echoed this sentiment: “In Rojhilate, only the regime, intelligence officers, and their families can afford food.”

Despite the Islamic Republic’s increasing use of harsh tactics, these women believe that the protests ignited by Jina Amini’s death indicate that the regime’s days are numbered.

“The Islamic Republic has definitely become weaker due to the protests. What we’ve seen since Jina’s death is a regime with an empty core,” Jilamo states, adding, “It’s only a matter of time before that core collapses.”