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Journalist Abused in Iranian Prison

Niusha Boghrati, July 26, 2010

One year after the unprecedented mass arrest of journalists and activists in Iran, which labeled the country as the "biggest prison of journalists in the world," reports of intensive abuse and torture continue to pour out from the Islamic Republic's cells and wards, the most shocking being sexual abuses.

In the latest case, according to sources from Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, detained journalist and renowned member of Iran's Center of Human Rights Defenders Abdolreza Tajik was forcibly stripped naked and "dishonored" while being interrogated in the presence of Tehran's deputy prosecutor. Details of the alleged offense have not been mentioned by the sources or family members, but the term "dishonored" is often used in Persian culture to describe sexual assault or abuse, including in legal context.

"In the one and only visit that we were allowed to have with my brother in prison, he told us that he was dishonored in front of Tehran's deputy general prosecutor and the interrogator," said Parvin Tajik, Abdolreza's sister. "He was very nervous and depressed and wanted to discuss the case with his attorney and Tehran's prosecutor." Tajik's defense has not been permitted to visit him so far.

Abdolreza Tajik, an aid to the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, is among hundreds of journalists, activists and reformist politicians who have been arrested since the highly disputed 2009 presidential election that reinstated the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was arrested for the third time during the past year on unknown charges and was held in detention for more than a month before the family was granted a visit.

Tajik's family has written an open letter to Iran's Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani, requesting a probe into the case, but they have not received an answer yet.

Tajik's whereabouts were held secret for around one month, and after his family announced that his name had not appeared on the Evin Prison list, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders warned that Tajik could end up to be Iran's next Zahra Kazemi. Kazemi was an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was arrested in Tehran back in 2003 while visiting from Montreal and later died in custody after being beaten up, in a much disputed case.

The harsh attitude towards Tajik could be related to the Islamic Republic's will to curb the country's most prestigious human rights NGO. Tajik might be paying the price for being an active member of Iran's Center of Human Rights Defenders, under pressure to confess against its activities.

Being considered a frontline in Iran's civil society, the Iranian regime has so far confronted almost all of the NGO's members. The office of the Center was forcibly shut down by security forces months before the presidential election, and almost all of its members have been since detained for at least weeks. The belongings of Shirin Ebadi have been confiscated. Abdolreza Tajik is the latest victim.

Shirin Ebadi, who heads Iran's Center of Human Rights Defenders, is pretty shaken up by the recent news about her colleague. "Previously there have been numerous reports about physical and mental torture of prisoners of conscience in Iran, and these tortures were usually carried out by the interrogators or the jailers; there have even been the cases of dishonoring," said Ebadi. "In the past the officials used to at least react to the news, but this time not only they have not reacted, but the harsher fact is that this act has been performed in front of a high-ranking judiciary official of the country, and to a very well known and respectable journalist."

Although the exact details of Tajik's case have not been revealed yet, sexual assault against prisoners has a long history in Iran. Even before the 1979 revolution that toppled the monarch system, there were reports of such abuses against political prisoners.

After the revolution and during the harsh crackdown on political activists during 1980s, there were cases of alleged rape of female prisoners. Following that period, such cases were seldom reported until the recent presidential election that mobilized the Green Movement in masses.

Weeks after the bloody crackdown on Green Movement supporters, Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist opposition leader, said in an open letter that he has undeniable evidence that there have been cases of rape to both girls and boys in detention. Although the news was rejected by the officials, some of the detainees who fled the country told foreign media that they were subjected to sexual assault, some raped by jailers and agents, some penetrated by batons and bottles. In less-severe cases, some prisoners said they were stripped naked and subjected to humiliation and threat. The Islamic Republic of Iran has continuously denied all such charges.

Although the dimensions of Tajik's case are not clear yet, the initial shocking news was enough to cause another wave of protest within the thousands of Iranian Internet users whose protest movement has taken to Facebook and tens of thousands of blogs.

Thousands of users have changed their Facebook profile pictures to Tajik's picture in support of the young detained journalist. One of the status updates reads, "Today you assault us. But today is closing up. Beware! Tomorrow is ours."

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