With the violent state crackdown on uprisings in Iran making headlines around the world, a Bay Area woman reached out to a childhood friend caught in the middle of the unrest.
The texts he sent back days later in November left her shaking.
Her 31-year-old friend described being tracked down after protesting in the streets of Tehran, detained and tortured until his release 22 days later.
In romanized Farsi, he texted that the ordeal began with plainclothes lawmen turning up at his door, blindfolding him and stuffing him into a car—all while his father watched in horror.
He said he was still blindfolded when officers pushed him down some stairs into a room flooded with water to prevent detainees from sitting down. He said he heard other prisoners cry from being sexually assaulted.
The Standard could not independently verify the details specified in the texts. The incidents described echo what international organizations tracking human rights abuses in Iran say is happening in parts of the country as the crackdown on protests unfolds.
The Iranian government limits internet access, which can make communication from protesters hard to come by.
To avoid repercussions for her friend, the woman who shared the texts with The Standard asked to go by Sarah in this story.
‘They Would Have Raped Me, Too’
Sarah’s friend texted about being haunted by what he witnessed and endured before his November release.
“Had I looked weak or had I cried like others, they would have raped me, too, as they raped others in my prison cell,” he wrote about two weeks after he said authorities let him go. “I got lucky; they only broke my bottom teeth and beat me up so much that I was vomiting blood, but they didn’t rape me.”
That same month, CNN published an investigation detailing sexual assault of prisoners—male and female, some as young as 13. Almost all of the 11 incidents the news outlet reported came from Kurdish areas of Iran amid unrest that swept the entire nation.
Mass protests erupted in September after a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman named Jina (Mahsa) Amini died in custody after authorities detained her for improperly wearing a hijab. The incident galvanized protests against the Islamic Republic of Iran—the world’s only theocracy established after the 1979 revolution—and demands for true democracy.
The uprisings came at a high price. Human rights groups say at least 519 people died in the protests—69 of them children—while more than 19,000 were arrested, the BBC reported earlier this month.
The United Nations, which is investigating suspected human rights abuses in the wake of the protests, said Iran has also executed four men since December—including a karate champion and volunteer children’s coach last week—and handed down death sentences to 17 others.
Sarah’s friend texted about crying every day after his release and about being unable to sleep despite taking heavy medication. He said he only shared his ordeal with two other people in Iran and hadn’t told his parents, whom he lives with.
“Since then, he hasn’t gone out because he’s been so traumatized,” Sarah told The Standard. “He still has nightmares, he can barely sleep. He said, ‘I feel like I don’t remember anything that happened before.’”
A couple hours after posting on Instagram about his release last fall, he said he got a call from a private number suggesting he’s still under watch. Sarah said she last spoke to her friend in late December.
Sarah is one of many Bay Area residents worryied about loved ones in Iran.
Zahra Daftarian, who was born in Iran and lives in Vacaville, said a relative in her home country was detained over social media posts criticizing the government.
She said her 20-something-year-old relative initially faced prison time but was eventually released—and hasn’t posted anything online since then. Daftarian said she talks to many people who share similar stories about someone they know back in Iran.
Despite the brutal consequences reported by protesters, the resistance continues.
“They’re just completely brave and fearless and amazing,” Daftarian said. “It’s just very awe-inspiring to watch them continue. Even what we’re hearing is terrible—clearly, it’s just a fragment.”
‘They’re Gonna Fall’
Before the protests really took off, Castro Valley resident Atieh Haghdoost used to speak with her mother and brother in Iran every other day. Now, she said she’s only able to reach them every week or two, and just for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
In those precious minutes, Haghdoost avoids talking politics because she’s not sure who might be listening. And she never asks her younger brother about the protests.
“It’s a difficult moment,” Haghdoost said. “It’s very stressful and emotional. We have a short time to talk, and I want to use that to talk about personal things. I don’t want that to be used on news and sad stuff.”
Seeing the resistance continue in Iran despite the backlash has inspired Daftarian, Sarah and many others in the Bay Area to take action. The nine-county region has seen several rallies on behalf of Iranian protests and intense interest in any developments. Bay Area activists have also urged elected officials to hold Iran’s leaders accountable for the government’s response to the protests and raised awareness on social media in addition to other signs of support.
“I still wake up every morning and think what can I do to help,” Sarah said. “These people are so fed up and determined. Every step they’re taking is totally against the regime.”
Only time will tell what comes from the movement, but many Iranians in the diaspora like Sarah say they believe current government’s days are numbered.
“They’re gonna fall,” she said. “I just can’t wait to dance in the streets when it happens.”
Ida Mojadad can be reached at [email protected]