ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson investigates Iran's 'black sites' where horrific torture is inflicted upon people protesting for women's rights.
For 165 days the Islamic Republic has been confronted with an uprising from its people. A protest led by women, about women’s rights but supported by many, many men, and the activists are intent on change.
For 74 of those days, 24-year-old Azzadeh has been in Turkey. She fled there after being abused by the regime’s security forces. She was grabbed in the street by plain clothes officers as she came out of a lecture. She was studying in Tehran.
“I tried to fight them. I tried to stop them from touching me but there were too many men. They got me on the floor and taped both my hands and legs together.”
Blindfolded, she was then driven for 20 minutes to an unofficial detention centre.
Through cross-referencing witness testimony and satellite imagery, ITV News was able to identify a building in the same area that is known to be a so-called “black site,” a hidden jail, belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. The IRGC is a major military, political and economic force in Iran. It is also the government’s enforcer.
“They took off my clothes and started making fun of my body. I was naked for three days.”
Azzadeh had never met me before but she cried with me. She is totally alone in Turkey and her ongoing ordeal is too horrific to comprehend.
“They injected me twice. I don’t know what with. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t feel my legs, I couldn’t walk, and then at the very end they cut off my hair. I used to have long hair but they cut it off short.”
She was punished simply because she was sending medical supplies to her hometown in the south of the country, which had run out during the violent protests.
“They tried to destroy me. Life shouldn’t be like this, that if you speak out, you get raped or killed."
Undoubtedly, she is afraid, even though she is outside of Iran now.
“Is putting your own life at risk worth it?” I asked her.
“Yes, I'm doing this knowingly. I’m putting myself in danger by talking to you, but it is worth it.”
The refuge that Turkey provides means voices can get louder and braver, allowing new evidence of the regime’s inhumanity to filter out.
“When they arrest you, they beat you. It is normal in my country”.
That’s what Sassan told me. He too is an activist. He too was held in a secret interrogation centre. He was taken at gunpoint to a building in the North of Iran, in Qaem Shahr. His crime, like so many others, has been daring to protest.
“The torture begins after an electric shot. They do something with your nails. They rape you rapidly. They call themselves moral police, and they have no moral codes.”
Torture is a tactic in these detention sites, where they operate outside the rule of law.
“Everyone in that country who is in jail, we don't know what's happening to them right now. Exactly the time that we are talking, they are under the torture. It's something like the dark ages.”
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We then travelled to meet a human rights lawyer who escaped from Iran in December, whose recent clients have also been held and abused in similar places. Human rights lawyer Farid said: "Iran's regime in the last few months, has completely put aside the law. There is no justice. They sentenced me to 6 months in prison and were going to jail me for 10 years on top of that. For simply doing my job which is not a crime."
When the uprising began in September, Farid created a group of human rights lawyers to address the cases that were coming to him. Cases of young people being tortured and detained. Farid too was once kept at a “black site” in Tabriz, when he was a student.
ITV News has identified three such buildings in that city. They are still there. One of them is used specifically for under 18s.
“I have been working on cases fighting against the government my whole career,” he told me.
He then explained that he wasn’t scared of the government or of losing his life or of being jailed. He escaped because he was ultimately going to be struck off and no longer able to practise the law. He left because he could no longer help people living in Iran, but he believes he can help them from the outside.
“I was once arrested for being politically active. They sent me to jail, and my mother had a stroke because of it. When I was released, my mother was dead, so I promised myself I would devote my life to helping other mothers with children imprisoned for daring to have an opinion.”
We wanted to see the country that operates in the shadows so I travelled as far as I could to Turkey’s border with Iran. We journeyed to the Kapikoy Border Crossing in Van and it is a foreboding landscape. We saw huge, snow-capped mountains and a dividing wall that is 10-foot tall and more than 180 miles long. Normal crossings and trade continue, but the people are always under surveillance.
We had to film surreptitiously. We couldn’t make our presence known, and crossing over as journalists is fraught with risk because you are not simply allowed inside Iran. For that, you need government approval and even if we had got that we’d be banned from covering the protests themselves. More than 60 journalists have been arrested and detained since the uprising first began. It is an iron-fist intimidation to silence any dissent.
On the Turkey side, there is relative safety for those who dare to speak out. While on the other, mercy and accountability appear absent. The beauty we saw belies the brutality beyond.