Victims and Witnesses
People Humiliate, Authorities Punish: the Story of an Afghan Woman in Iran
Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation
March 27, 2015
Immigration to Iran
My name is Zahra. I was born in early 1979 in the city of Harat, Afghanistan, during the war, which was the reason we immigrated to Iran. We took up residence legally in [the city of] Mashhad’s Simetri-e Tollab neighborhood. We were supposed to go to the Afghan’s Council (located in the city of Mashhad) once every six months, and to obtain an identification card (for a sum). We could live in Mashhad only if we had that card.
I was able to finish fourth grade in Mashhad. I got married at the age of thirteen, and my husband was a shoemaker. A short while later, having lived with my in-laws since the time we were married, we rented a house in Mashhad’s Shirudi neighborhood, near my husband’s shop. We have one son and three daughters together.
Arrest and Humiliation
On June 22, 2011, I went to the bakery near our house to buy bread. It was 7:00 a.m., and there was a somewhat long line. My turn came around 8:00 a.m. There was a woman in line who kept saying, “Why do you buy so much bread? Take less.”
Then she started insulting me: “You Afghan jackass. Ever since you people came to Iran, there are crowds everywhere.” An argument ensued, and she then approached me and slapped me in the face and pulled my hair. I defended myself and pulled her hair, hit her and scratched her face with my nails. Nothing happened to may face but her face got wounded. The people who were there contacted the police. A little later, two officers who were wearing green uniforms and hats, showed up in a white Peykan [automobile] with a green line and the police emblem.
One of the officers, who was angry and aggressive got out of the car and without touching us got both of us inside and took us to the E’dam Square police station. They took us to the second floor of the station. There were three agents in the room; two in plainclothes and one wearing an official green police uniform. Their names were on the tags attached to the front of their shirts, but I wasn’t literate enough to read, and they didn’t introduce themselves.
The officer, who had brought us to the station, told his colleague, who was sitting behind the desk, that we had gotten into a fight in the bakery line. I said, “This lady started it. She insulted me and slapped me in the face.” The officer behind the desk told me, very rudely, to “be quiet and sit down.” I sat down. Then that lady was allowed to speak, but I was not. Every time I wanted to open my mouth they would say, “Shut up, you idiot. Be quiet and sit down!” After a short while, the agent who had taken us to the station came toward me and said, “Do you know who you picked a fight with? Do you know who this woman is?” to which I responded, “How should I know? She’s someone like me.” “No,” he said, “her husband is a member of the [Revolutionary Guards] Corps.” At that point, the lady looked at me and said, “You just wait and see what I’m going to do to you, you Afghan jackass. You piece of garbage. You came to our country and messed it up.” I didn’t say a thing, I didn’t know what to do. It was the first time I had been to a place like that. I just kept crying and pleading, “Please, for the love of God, let me call my husband.” But they didn’t care. They wouldn’t even listen to what I was saying. The police officer who was talking to her kept telling me to sit down and be quiet; otherwise he would “take me downstairs.” Up until that moment, they hadn’t allowed me to speak, nor had they let me call my husband, whereas that lady did both.
About two hours later, a female officer took me to a very small room in the lower level, where there was a desk, a few chairs, and a number of cabinets. There were two women there who immediately told me to take all my clothes off, which I did. They then allowed me to wear my own blouse, pants, [overall Islamic] coat, and head scarf, but [they] took my shoes and other personal effects and put them in a cabinet, locked it, and put a number on it. Then they asked my name, address, and contact number. Then, one of them opened a steel door that was in the room and told me to go in. They put me in that room and locked the door. It was a large room, covered with carpeting, with a dirty bathroom, and a very low wattage light, almost like a night lamp. There were five or six other people there as well.
I could not understand where I was. I kept banging on the door without getting any response. When they did respond, they would open the door and scream, “Shut up and go to sleep,” and would close the door and leave. They did not give us any food, and I spent that night in the detention center.
At 8:00 a.m. the next day, they returned my shoes and personal effects and took me to the room upstairs. My husband was waiting for me there. They had contacted him the day before, after they had taken me to detention. He had immediately come to the station but was told to come back in the morning. He had therefore shown up at 8:00. I started crying when I saw him. “What happened,” he asked, and I told him the whole story. A short while later, an officer carrying a file came toward me and told me to “hurry up.” A soldier handcuffed my right hand to his left and told my husband that they were taking me to “Chahar Tabaqeh,” i.e., Imam Khomeini Judicial Center. I was taken there in a car with a driver, the officer, and the soldier. My husband came with another car but he was not allowed in. They would not pay attention to me or talk to me on the way, no matter what I said.
Trial at Imam Khomeini Judicial Center
I was taken to the second floor when we got to the Center. The second floor consisted of a very large room with wall to wall desks and chairs. There were one or two people sitting at each desk. A few minutes later, I was taken before an angry looking cleric with a short beard and a white [traditional] cloak, around forty or fifty years old. The lady was there too. She was wearing a manteau and it seemed that two or three if the buttons were torn off.
The cleric said “Sit!” They took the handcuffs off, and I sat down. He looked at me and asked: “What’s your name and surname?” “Zahra …” “Why did you do this? Why did you have a fight? Why did you beat this lady?” he asked. “Is it my fault?” I asked. “We were in the bakery line, and she insulted me and then slapped me. And I hit her back. You say these things to me because I’m Afghan?” As soon as I uttered these words, he started screaming at me. That woman kept saying, “I’ll show you, you Afghan. You messed up our country.” She said anything she wanted to, and the cleric didn’t say anything to her. And I kept crying. I couldn’t say anything, because they wouldn’t listen to me. They didn’t care that I was a human being, too, that she had beaten me, as well.
The cleric was writing during the entire session, and occasionally asked questions. And After two hours, the cleric said, “You’re going to jail for a year for having beaten and injured this lady. That will teach you a lesson.” “She beat me too,” I said. “Look what you’ve done to her face, you pulled all her hair out, scratched her face.” Then they got several papers from the file and told me to put my fingerprint on them. I was crying and shaking all over, but it was no use. I fingerprinted whatever they had put in front of me without knowing what they were. Finally the cleric signed the papers, gave the file to one of the agents, and said, “Take her away.”
I was just crying. I had never seen a prison, or any place, like that. “Please, for the love of God, don’t do this, let me go,” I begged. The agent handcuffed me and took me toward the stairs without paying attention to me. They put shackles on me and took me downstairs. My husband was waiting for me outside and started crying when he saw me like that. He came toward me, but the agent accompanying me pushed him away and didn’t let us talk. I was then transferred to Mashhad’s Vakilabad Prison on a minibus with a number of other detainees.
Vakilabad Prison, Lack of Information, and Waiting
When we got to Vakilabad Prison, I was first taken to a small room, containing a number of counters, with one person standing behind each. The counters were so tall that you could only see the agents from the chest up. The agent accompanying me went to one of the counters and surrendered my file to a female agent. They took my handcuffs and shackles away; the female agent took my fingerprints, then put a sign with numbers on it around my neck, and told me to hold it against my chest. Then they took my right and left profiles and full-face pictures. Another woman then took me to another room for a body search. There were a desk and some chairs and two female agents in the room. They told me to take all my clothes off and to do three squats. I was surprised at first and didn’t know what they wanted me to do. One of the agents demonstrated and said, “Like this, three times.” I took all my clothes off and did three squats, then put my clothes back on. They brought a bag and told me to put in all my personal effects, such as cell phone, money, and shoes. So I put in my cell phone, that had already been turned off, the money that I had on me to buy bread, and my shoes, since they had told me I was not allowed to wear shoes there. Barefoot, I was taken to a very large room called, “Quarantine,” where there were other detainees.
On each of three sides of the room there were three three-level beds, all of which were occupied. I had to lie on the floor carpeting with six other people. Each prisoner had a blanket. There was a stairway on one side of the room that led to an area where there were two sinks and a toilet. There was no shower; so we had to use the sink, in order to bathe, as well as for drinking water. The room had no windows, and the light in the room consisted of a small ceiling light. The prisoners were not allowed to go outside while in quarantine. One of the prisoners, one we called “Mother,” was in charge of the room; one of her responsibilities was to divide the food between the prisoners. We were given three meals a day, which Mother distributed, for instance a piece of bread as big as the palm of your hand for breakfast. For lunch, we had rice and green beans with yogurt, which was inedible. Dinner was half a potato with a piece of bread. This was the food they gave us in quarantine.
No matter how much I begged them to let me call my family, those three days were like death to me; I was not allowed to for three days. The room mother would say, “Be quiet. You’re here for three days; when you go downstairs, do anything you want.”
When the three days were up, the room mother read our names in order and told us to line up and follow her. We went from the Quarantine toward another room and waited to be given permission to enter. A woman came and took us in one-by-one. There were two female agents in the room, who immediately told me to take all my clothes off and do three squats. Then they said, “Hurry up and put your clothes back on.” I was then taken to another room and waited for the other prisoners. When everyone came, we were taken to a very big hall, on both sides of which there were rooms, controlled by a large camera. There were 32 to 35 prisoners in each room. They sent each of us into one of the rooms. There were beds on three sides of the room. Each side had three three-level beds: that is, a total of 27 places. The room I was sent to did not have an empty place, and I was forced to lie on the cell floor.
Two days later, I started banging on the door and yelling, “Why have you brought me here? Let me make a call. Tell my husband and kids to come.” One of the guards opened the door and said, “What’s the matter? Why are you making so much noise? You’re not alone here. You can’t make a call, and that’s it. I will tell later when you can. Now, be quiet or I’ll take you to solitary.” “I don’t want to be quiet,” I said, crying, “why have you brought me here? I haven’t done anything.” She suddenly hit me in the nose and mouth with the back of her hand. “You won’t shut your mouth? You want me tear you apart?” Then she pulled my hair and hit the back of my hand with something resembling a ruler. Then she stepped on my bare feet with her shoes and started to push down hard and proceeded to take me to solitary confinement, which was located in another section. She opened the door to the cell and pushed me inside.
The cell floor was bare, Although it was summer, it was so cold that my teeth were shattering. I pulled both my legs against my chest and used a dirty blanket that was there to get warm. The cell was very dark, no light, no windows. The length of the cell was such that, when I lied down, my feet would touch the door. There was just enough room for someone my height, 5 feet 3 inches. The width was such that, when I sat and extended my legs, the bottom of my feet touched the wall. There was a minuscule window on the door, the size of my eyes, from which the guards could look in to see what I was doing.
I was kept in that cell for a day, without food and without going to the bathroom. I was so afraid that I was hugging my legs and crying, banging on the door and screaming, “For the love of God, get me out of here! Open the door! I didn’t say anything, I just said I wanted to call my husband, my home, my children. Why have you brought me here?” The next day, a guard looked into the cell, opened the door when she realized I had quieted down, and said, “Don’t say anything anymore, and just be quiet!” “Please, just let me make one phone call to my children. My daughter is very little,” I said.
“No. Be quiet. You can’t. You can call when they let you. If you start making noise, again, I will bring you back here, and this time, I will tie your hands and feet,” she responded. I was taken back to the ward and, this time, they cuffed my foot to the cell door for an hour so I wouldn’t make noise.
I spent nine months in jail without any contact with my family and was sent six times to solitary confinement for one day, beaten and insulted, because of the noise I made. After returning to the ward, they would tie my foot to the cell door for an hour.
During those nine months, I developed numerous physical problems, because of being beaten, sent to solitary, and tied to the door. For instance, they had hit me on the back of my hand with that piece of wood that looked like a ruler, so much that the skin around my fingernails had come off and I had wounds there. The solitary confinement cell and the blankets were so dirty that I had wounds on my head and my hair was falling out; it was ridden with lice. They therefore shaved my head, then gave me a small bowl of Tide with lice shampoo and told me to take a shower and wash my head. My foot was also injured, because they would tie it very tightly to the door. In spite of all these physical problems, in that entire time, not once did a doctor look at me or give me any type of medication. There was not a doctor to go to and talk about my problems.
There were four other Afghan immigrants in prison, two of whom had been arrested for possession of drugs, and the other two, a mother and a daughter, had been arrested one month prior to my release, because they didn’t have residence permits. On the day of my release, they, too, were transferred to Torbate Jam Camp, to be sent over the border.
On March 24, 2012, I was allowed visitation with my husband for the first time after nine months. They informed me the night before and called me the next morning to take me to the visitation hall. I changed into a prison uniform, which consisted of a Maqna’eh (head covering), [overall Islamic] coat, pants, slippers, socks, and a dark blue simple Chador, and went to the visitation hall, accompanied by a female guard. My husband had come alone. We met from behind a glass and were able to talk on the phone. I was happy that he had come, but I was upset that I was there and that we had to meet like that. He was upset, too, and was crying. He didn’t expect to see me from behind a glass partition. “Why didn’t you come all this time,” I asked. “I’ve come here every day,” he said, “either to the Judicial Center, or to the prosecutor’s office, or to the prison gate. They don’t give me any answers, what would you have me do?” In fact, he had been to the police station and the prison so often, that, at some point, one of the guards at the prison gate had given him a notary’s address and told him to go there and “pay a hundred thousand Tumans, two pictures, two pictures of the prisoner, and they will issue you a visitation card.” My husband had done just that and was told to go to the prison gate to receive the card there. One day, when he had gone to the prison, they gave him the card and told him to wait to be called.
From that day forward, I had visitations every two weeks, and my husband started bringing my children. I was happy to see the children. Of course, I was only allowed to visit them, not to contact them on the phone.
Trial After One Year of Waiting
On June 18, 2012, about three months after the first visitation, and after spending around one year waiting for a second adjudication of my case, I was taken to court without being told anything in advance. It was around 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning, when I was taken out of the ward to change. I put on a prison uniform, was handcuffed, shackled, put on a minibus, and taken to Mashhad General Court, located at Garagedarha Intersection.
When I got off the bus, I became aware of my husband, my children, and my mother, who were there, crying. None of them was allowed to approach me. Apparently, my husband had been contacted early that morning and was told that I was to be taken to court. So, my husband had come there with the rest of my family.
In order to enter the court building, I had to cross a city gutter. The female officer accompanying me kept forcing me to cross the gutter with my shackles, and I couldn’t. I cried and told her that I couldn’t. People had gathered to watch what the officer was doing to me. She was yelling at me and saying, “I’ll beat you, I’ll push you, go, go, you piece of garbage.” She ended up pushing me, and I quickly grabbed a tree, in order not to fall. I don’t know how I finally crossed the gutter. After I did, however, the officer kept pushing me and telling me to “enter the building.” I was taken to the second floor, and I sat on a chair for about an hour. When my turn came, the female officer told me to go inside; she then pushed me, handcuffed and shackled.
There were a number of desks there, as well as one woman and four men, one of whom was the judge, a cleric. The woman I had gotten into a fight with was not present. The judge didn’t say anything to me, didn’t even look at me to see if I was shackled or not. The only thing he said was, “Why did you do this to this lady? Have you learned your lesson?” I did not say anything. He told me to get up and sign a paper. They undid my handcuffs to sign. The judge put a number of papers in front of me to sign. He didn’t say whether I would be released or not. I signed the papers, was handcuffed again, and was taken back to prison on that same bus.
Transfer to Prison and Implementation of the Flogging Sentence
I changed my clothes once we got back to prison. At 9:00 p.m. that night, prison authorities suddenly walked into the ward and read off the names of five prisoners who were to be flogged that night. My name was read, too, and I was to receive 91 lashes. The judge had not said anything about lashes. That was why, when I heard my name, I started shaking, uncontrollably. I forgot everything. I was frightened and was crying. “Why do you want to flog me? I haven’t done anything,” I said. “Be quiet, or we’ll double it,” they responded. They took us out of the ward, right then, to a small room upstairs. There were two women there, one of whom was supposed to carry out the sentence. She was wearing a long coat and was covering her face with a mask with openings for the eyes, only. They told me to take all my clothes off. They gave me a thin, white blouse to wear that reached down to my knees. Then they laid me down on a bed, tied my hands around the bed in a hugging position, then my feet. The person who carried out the sentence was the one whose face was covered, and the other one counted the lashes. The whip was an electric cable and they hit me 91 times on my back. I screamed out of fear, and my blood pressure had dropped. I passed out after the second lash. When I regained consciousness, I found myself on the floor of an empty cell. There was no one there, and I was still wearing the white shirt. After a while, a guard opened the cell door and said, “Get up and change.” I couldn’t. She didn’t pay any attention and told me to get up. I leaned against the wall to get up. Once I was standing, she took the shirt off, which was stuck to me because I had bled so much. I didn’t feel anything, though, because my body was completely numb. I put my own clothes on and was taken back to the ward, without being looked at by a doctor. The room mother had put an additional blanket on the floor for me so I could lie down. I was in great pain, and my cellmates had to help me if I wanted to go to the toilet or to eat or drink.
Ultimately, three days later, on the morning of June 21, 2012, I was released from prison and sent to Torbate Jam Camp, to be sent over the border.
Freedom and Deportation Across the Border
On the morning of my release, guards came to our ward and took me and the mother and daughter (who had been imprisoned, because they didn’t have identification cards) upstairs, and returned my personal effects. Then, a guard got two signatures from me and told me to follow her. They put me and the mother and daughter on a white bus, without handcuffs, and took us to Torbate Jam Camp, which is a family camp.
Torbate Jam Camp had two sections, one of which had several rooms reserved for families, and the other was reserved for women who were by themselves. There were several bathrooms in a section of the room, but there were no showers. There was also a large barrel containing drinking water. I spent a week in the camp and was then sent across the border.
While I was waiting at Torbate Jam Camp to be sent across the border, my husband and my children had gone to wait for me in Harat. Apparently, they had been contacted before my release from prison and told that I was going to be deported to Afghanistan. That was why they had all gone to Afghanistan to wait for my arrival. When I saw my family, I thought I had been born again. I cried tears of joy and was very happy to see my children.
All of these events seem like a nightmare. When I talk about them I get angry. I hope to be able to study and make a good life for my family. I want everyone to know that Afghans are human beings, too, and they, too, are God’s children.
In the one year that I spent in prison, I realized that - if prisoners objected to anything or got into a fight - their hand or foot would be cuffed to the poles in their cells, and if they need food or water, the room mother would help them.
Roll call took place twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. They would line everyone up in the morning and count them, and, at night, they would read off their names, and the prisoners would raise their hands.
There was a small window inside the main hall, opening into the prison store. They would open that window once a day for an hour, so that prisoners could buy things if they wanted to. I, however, did not have any money and could, therefore, not buy any hygienic products, detergents, or food. That was why my clothes were dirty and damaged. I had become skinny and weak, so much so that my pants had gotten too big for me and I had to tie the waist with a piece of rope. There were two women there who shared whatever they bought for themselves with me and also gave me their clothes. There was no phone in the ward and, if the prisoner wanted to use a phone, she would be taken out so she could use the phones outside.
At the end of the ward there were two rooms, one with five toilets and the other one with four showers. Prisoners had to line up to use the toilets in the morning. The showers were open twice a week only, and if your turn didn’t come, you would have to wait until the next time. There was a yard next to the bathrooms and showers that we were allowed to use in the morning for three hours, after roll call. Most prisoners would spend their days knitting, sewing, drawing, and doing handicrafts.
Halfway through my time in jail, one night they took two prisoners away to be executed for drug crimes. They turned the lights off in the ward and locked all the cells. I don’t know their names. One was young, and the other one was about forty.