'It has to end': Protesters tell ITV News of sexual violence at hands of Iranian regime

This video contains distressing images

ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson heard of claims of sexual abuse and rape used as weapons of war to subdue and punish arrested women in Iran

Fearless young girls are bearing the brunt of this regime’s brutality.

They have been campaigning on the streets for “Women. Life. Freedom” since the death of Mahsa Amini last September.

She was a 22-year-old-woman who died in police custody after being arrested for “improperly wearing her hijab.”

In Iran, the bravest of the brave are now daring to shed their headscarves in this fight for freedom, and put themselves at risk of sexual violence. Late last year, we heard that sexual assault and rape might be being used as a means of suppression by government forces in the Islamic Republic.

We wanted to report on it but we needed first-hand accounts. Finding someone courageous enough to talk about it was difficult.

Iranians protests the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran. Credit: AP Photo/Middle East Images, File

We had seen footage of a woman groped between her legs by government forces in the street. We had seen video of women screaming as they were arrested and bundled into police vans, but Iran is a fortress to independent journalists.

We are not allowed in, so have to rely on videos taken on phones from the inside, and testimony from those brave enough to speak out, as well as from those who have fled.

Protests persist despite the threats of violent to demonstrators. Credit: Manoto TV

It took us two months, but we managed to locate a woman who wanted to tell her story of sexual abuse by the Revolutionary Guard in custody.

We also tracked down another woman who had escaped to Europe, who claims her flatmate, who is still in prison, was raped by government forces. “Zahra” is still living in Iran so we must protect her identity. She was arrested for handing out flyers at a protest in October.

She sent me documentation of her arrest, x-rays of her broken bones after being tortured and beaten in jail. She also told me of her sexual assault. “He put his hand inside me,” she told me. “With his other hand he was touching my breasts. I kept shouting and screaming. He left after thirty or forty minutes." She broke down as she recalled it. “I'm not well at all, I think about it every night.” She also told me about other women in the prison, who she said had suffered even more. “There were three other women. Two were raped. They were 18 and 17. Another woman was pregnant and hit so badly she lost her baby. She was bleeding heavily.“ I travelled abroad to speak to another woman - Faria - who fled from Iran in November.

Faria is not her real name but she wanted to share with ITV News what happened to her roommate when she too was arrested for protesting.

“According to her doctor she had internal bleeding because of the sexual assault. "Police and the government said to her mum to be quiet and we shouldn’t talk about it.”

Faria played ITV News' Lucy Watson a harrowing voicemail. Credit: ITV News

She then played a voice message for me - from the medic on duty the day her friend was taken into hospital by police. It explains what was written in her flatmate’s medical records.

“[The medic] confirms 100% that she was raped.” “Doctors called her mother. They weren’t allowed to. When they called her mother [my friend] was stolen from the hospital because the police realised [her mum] was coming for her. She was searching the hospital for two days and couldn’t find her.” Faria herself can never return home to Iran because of what she is brave enough to say, from a position of relative safety abroad. “Sexual assault is not just for girls and women in jail. It’s for men too. They will sexually assault you and it will tear you apart, it will break you, but still some people don't talk about it. I have to do this.”

The accounts and videos are as horrifying as they are powerful.

Human Rights organisations and lawyers have presented similar findings to ours to the United Nations, and continue to gather evidence about sexual oppression.

I spoke to Rothna Begum at Human Rights Watch who is part of their Women’s Rights Division.

'It has to end,' Rothna Begum said of the way security forces have deployed tactics

“We have documented women and girls talking about facing harassment as well as assault at the time of arrest, as well as during detention," Ms Begum said.

"That includes being groped, being threatened with rape. It's been quite gruesome the way that’s being employed. And, we're seeing the security forces employ that to really humiliate, degrade and deny women their rights.

"They are trying to really tell women and girls, this is what is going to happen to you. If you come out and you protest then you're asking for it, you want to be assaulted, you want to be harassed. It has to end.

"We need to see both allies of Iran, as well as the international community at large, making it really clear where they stand on this.” We can obtain statistics about the number of deaths in Iran since protests began in September.

We can get hold of figures about executions. Verifying exact numbers surrounding sexual violence is harder.

In a country that has such a strict moral code, there is a great deal of shame and fear for the victim, and the victim’s family. Late last year, the UN ordered a fact-finding mission to take place inside Iran to investigate the violence being used against protesters.

But, human rights lawyers I’ve spoken to since say gender-based violence experts must be part of that, or else these hidden actions of the regime will never be officially documented.

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Iran’s judiciary this week says it has ordered an inquiry into allegations of rape and sexual assault inside its prisons, and claimed sexual harassment has been amplified by “some media outlets hostile” to the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s Prison Service has denied women were sexually assaulted inside its jails.

The uprising we have witnessed for nearly four months is not just about head coverings. It is not just about Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody.

For women, and men, it is about toppling a regime that is repressive and brutal. Protesters are being executed and sexually abused to terrify the population into surrender, and the international community is being called upon to make its stand clear. Only yesterday, the UK’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat, after the regime executed two more protesters at the weekend.

The UN said the executions followed ”unfair trials based on forced confessions", and the UK has repeatedly called on the regime to end the use of the death penalty. Yet schoolgirls still persevere, still campaign for their rights, despite the threats of torture and death.

They believe immorality lies not with a girl who uncovers her hair and protests, but with the government that arrests and abuses her for it.

Here are some links to help people after experiencing a sexual assault

Help after rape and sexual assault - NHS

Rape Crisis charity

The Survivors Trust