An Iranian refugee who is rebuilding his life in the UK has described how he fled torture and risked his life in a refrigerated lorry to reach safety.
The 35-year-old has spoken publicly about his ordeal for the first time as he thanked charity workers for helping him on the road to recovery.
Saman – who is using an alias as he still fears for the safety of his family, who remain in Iran – described excruciating and humiliating methods of torture he said he was subjected to after being wrongly accused of political activism against his native country’s government.
He decided to speak out as the boss of the charity which supported him, Freedom from Torture, accused governments of “turning a blind eye” to such practices and called on UK leaders to take tougher steps against countries like Iran.
Speaking exclusively to the PA news agency, the lorry driver – who now lives in Birmingham after being granted asylum – said he was kidnapped by armed men in 2010 and interrogated by what he described as agents from Iran’s equivalent of the security services.
He said he was held in a dark cell for 100 days while they demanded information about his employers – businessmen who the authorities suspected were political activists plotting against the Iranian government.
Saman told how he was repeatedly beaten with a cable, burned with cigarettes and faced a mock execution while begging them to stop and insisting he knew nothing about the claims.
He described the experience as “horrible” and said it has left him with lasting health problems.
After being charged with “acting against national security, war against the God and bringing corruption upon planet earth” – which he denied – he said he was refused access to a lawyer but convicted and sentenced to death by a judge.
He spent six years in prison and only escaped when his family paid smugglers to help him flee the country while he was allowed out on temporary licence due to ill health.
Really, we didn’t have a choice. I just wanted to find a safe place
During the dangerous four-month journey he crossed borders on foot while dodging police gun fire; hid in derelict buildings; stowed away under cargo in the back of lorries; and was slowly starved of oxygen in the back of a locked refrigerated container while other migrants collapsed around him before they were rescued by UK emergency services, he said.
Saman, who is learning English and applying for a UK HGV licence, said: “Really, we didn’t have a choice. I just wanted to find a safe place.”
But during the very last moments of the voyage he said he feared for his life, adding: “It was a fridge. They put us in the fridge and they took us to the UK.
“There wasn’t oxygen. We couldn’t breathe.
“It was very bad. Four months we were waiting (to arrive) and now we could die? We were scared.”
They were rescued by emergency services and he claimed asylum shortly afterwards in February 2017, before receiving legal advice and counselling from Freedom from Torture.
His asylum application was granted in October 2018 and he was reunited with his wife earlier this year after she was allowed to join him in the UK.
He said: “When I arrived in the UK, I didn’t know where I was. Now I’m very, very happy.
“I wasn’t like I am now when I came here. I was depressed. Now I can speak about this.
“Everybody helped me and I say thank you.”
After being reunited with his wife after eight years, Saman said the pair are “very happy” and are looking forward to finding work as well as hoping to start a family together.
Freedom from Torture’s chief executive Sonya Sceats told PA: “Sadly Saman’s story is very typical of having been tortured for political reasons.
“Iran is the second top country of origin for all of the survivors we treat.
“This is one of the reasons why many Iranians find their way to the UK seeking asylum and why the grant rate for those seeking protection is fairly high, because our Government does recognise that torture happens so frequently inside the Iranian prison system.”
She said not enough was being done by leaders to put pressure on countries using torture, claiming western governments including the UK were “refraining from applying the right kind of pressure because of issues that are considered more important around nuclear disarmament and trade.
“So what we have is an effectual turning of a blind eye to terrible torture practices like Iran,” she added.
Human rights sanctions were “not discussed enough” and independent organisations should be allowed into Iran to monitor prison conditions, she said.
Ms Sceats also called on the UK Government to carry out a complete overhaul of its approach towards asylum claims to cut down on delays in decision-making and give refugees more support.