2010 Katharine & George Alexander Law Prize Address
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With what I learned from that experience, these days I am researching the instances of sexual torture in Iranian prisons within the last 30 years. Many friends ask me, “When the Iranian women presently have a horde of necessary and vital problems, why are you spending your time and energy on a topic that everyone, even the family members of the victims, are trying hard to forget?” In truth, why must so much time and energy be spent on researching the past while in the present, violations of human rights is occurring in a widespread and systematic way in Iran?
I was arrested in June 2009 en route to join a post election protest. During my first interrogation in prison, while blindfolded and facing the wall, the interrogator who was asking me about political issues and my activities in the women's rights movement suddenly asked a very personal question about my marital relationship. I asked him what the question had to do with the case file?! He firmly stated the question again and demanded an answer. The pain imposed by him, the supreme authority, by entering the private domain of my life, a powerless prisoner, was a new experience for me. After that interrogation, I spent hours in my solitary cell thinking of his question. I wondered, if the interrogator's entry into my private life through posing a question was so painful, then imagine the pain suffered by those prisoners who were subjected to sexual torture and rape throughout the years. However, this personal experience alone is not enough to justify my present focus on sexual torture in prisons. To justify this focus, I have to start elsewhere. I have to start from the beginning, the beginning of the Islamists gaining power in Iran, the beginning of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There is little documented information available about sexual torture and harassment in prison during the first decade after the Islamists gained power in Iran. To this day, no one knows the exact number of prisoners executed between 1981 and 1988 merely for their political beliefs. There are no correct statistics available about the prison massacre of 1988. I promised to speak today not of statistics and numbers, not in the general sense, but of the specifics, of people and faces. I want to speak of three lasting cases, three resonating questions.
The first name and face is that of Niloufar Tashayod, a 15-year-old high school student. She was arrested at her school for having participated in an anti-governmental demonstration and having distributed flyers of the leftist organization she was a supporter of. She was sentenced to execution. The organization she supported condemned armed conflict and stood for political struggle. She was tried, without an attorney, in a court hearing that lasted less than 5 minutes and within three months of her arrest, without even a chance to see her family, she was executed. Years later, one of her cell mates wrote about her and said, “I lay down next to Niloufar. She held my hand and said, 'I am afraid of dying.' I looked at her, not knowing what to say. My heart was trembling. Like her, I lacked experience in this field. I held her head in my arms and, slowly so as not to wake up the other girls, said, 'Niloufar Jan, who says we are going to die?' She held me tight like an abandoned child and said, 'They won't let me out of here.' Then slowly she started to cry.” She was executed by a firing squad in September of 1981.
Family members of virgin girls who were executed in the 1980s for their political activities testified to international investigators that the girls were raped before execution. They believe that, based on a religious belief stating that an executed virgin will go to heaven, the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran would marry and then rape the girls the night before the execution so as to prevent these oppositionists from going to heaven. Researching this matter almost three decades later, to me the violent rape of virgin prisoner girls prior to execution is not a mere statement that has lost its effect due to excess usage. Today, my specific question is: Was Niloufar Tashayyod, who was barely 15 at the time of her execution, raped before she was executed?
The second name and face is that of Zahra Kasemi, a photojournalist who was arrested on June 23, 2003, while photographing the gathering of family members of the political prisoners in front of Evin Prison in Tehran. Eighteen days later, her lifeless body was handed over to her family. Government authorities announced cause of death to be “hitting of the head with a blunt object.” The only person charged in this case was later acquitted. However, the doctor who was employed by the ministry of defense of Iran and worked at the military hospital where she was taken from prison, left Iran in 2004 and sought asylum in Canada. He claims that after examining Zahra Kazemi's body, four days after her arrest, signs of severe beating, torture and rape were present. She then suffered a brain hemorrhage due to an impact to her head while resisting and died in the hospital. Today, my specific question is: By which person or people, and how, was Zahra Kazemi sexually tortured and raped?
The third and final name and face that I wish to speak about today is that of Taraneh Mousavi. Like the other two, she is also an omnipresent question, whose mere existence has been denied by the Iranian authorities. It is said that she was arrested in one of the gatherings in Tehran after the 2009 election. According to this narrative, an eyewitness said, “The riot police put me and a group of other detainees in vans and took us to detention centers in the north of Tehran where they physically and psychologically tortured us. Taraneh was amongst us. She had a beautiful face and figure and was dressed fashionably. Her interrogation lasted the longest. She had green eyes. That night, I was released along with a bunch of the detainees. Before our release they sent another bunch to other places. However, the plain-clothed forces kept Taraneh at that place and did not even allow her to contact her mother.”
After three weeks, during which her family had no news of her, an unknown person tells Taraneh's mother through a phone conversation that her daughter is hospitalized somewhere. They announce the reason for her hospitalization to be a car accident, through which she sustained the injuries of tearing of her uterus and rectum. In the end, Taraneh's lifeless body was handed over to her family-but due to threats by security authorities, Taraneh's family have not yet released their version of the events.
My question today is: What must be done for Taraneh's family to have the opportunity to tell their version of their sorrow-filled story out loud?
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