Tehran denies abusing human rights and seeks to deflect criticism by pointing the finger at abuses by Western countries. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has accused the US of oppressing the black community. Other leaders have boasted that, unlike the West, Iran has no racial discrimination. I know different; having been a victim of the regime’s anti-Arab racism.
I belong to the Arab ethnic minority in Iran, known as Ahwazis. Our homeland, Al-Ahwaz, is now part of south-west Iran. Oil-rich and agriculturally-abundant, it was annexed by Tehran in 1925 and renamed Khuzestan.
In the years after the 2005 Ahwazi Arab uprising against the Iranian occupation of Al-Ahwaz, the Tehran regime made indiscriminate mass arrests of an estimated 25,000 Ahwazi human rights, cultural and political activists.
The university authorities reported me to the security services after I formed a student group to raise awareness of the officially suppressed Ahwazi Arab culture. This was seen as a threat to the regime.
They accused me of endangering national security, anti-government propaganda, activism against the regime and inciting secessionist sentiments.
I was incarcerated in solitary confinement, without trial, in section six of the infamous Sepidar prison, where I endured two months of relentless abuse and torture. Only the solidarity and brotherhood of fellow activists and cellmates gave me the inner strength to not give up.
My cell was dank and narrow, measuring 2.5 metres by 1.5 metres. The walls were painted a violent red, possibly as camouflage for blood. The "window" was a narrow slit through which sunlight would appear, but only in the morning.
"On one occasion, a guard brought a recorder into my cell and played a recording of women screaming in agony, saying to me: “That’s your sister; we’re 'pleasuring’ her because she’s a bitch like you, you Arab moron.” "
Day and night I could hear the screaming and weeping of fellow prisoners – men, women and children – who were incarcerated and tortured there. It was the norm for guards to inflict casual cruelty, such as forbidding prisoners access to a toilet so that they were forced to urinate in the cell, which stank to a nausea-inducing extent in the heat.
Among other forms of physical torture, I was tied to a metal bed frame by the wrists and ankles and savagely whipped. If I resisted or cursed the guards, they would prolong and intensify the torture. They raped me violently and repeatedly with the large whip handle; so brutally that the rape did permanent injury to my rectum, for which I still need medical treatment.
During the torture sessions, my interrogators attempted to extract forced confessions from me; bullying me to state that I was involved with Ahwazi political parties abroad – a charge that I consistently denied, since it was untrue.
The physical torture, and constant anti-Arab racist abuse, were accompanied by many forms of psychological torture intended to demean, humiliate and break me.
On one occasion, a guard brought a recorder into my cell and played a recording of women screaming in agony, saying to me: “That’s your sister; we’re 'pleasuring’ her because she’s a bitch like you, you Arab moron.” When I cursed him in response, he left the cell and returned with other guards, who beat and kicked me almost unconscious before stripping me naked and using lighted cigarette butts to burn my genitals and feet.
Another time, the guards handcuffed my hands behind my back and hanged me from a ceiling fan. I was also beaten black and blue with a large heavy belt.
In my cell, I would distract myself from the fear, hunger, torture and verbal abuse by reading the graffiti scratched on the wall by previous prisoners. One said: “Don’t panic, your suffering is not greater than Almighty Allah,” while another read: “I am innocent and will be hanged soon.” A despairing father wrote simply and heartbreakingly: “My dear son, when you grow up you will come here like your father – this is the fate of all Ahwazis.”
"Despite the operations, which required the removal of part of my large intestine, I am still in near-constant pain and suffer severe digestive and vomiting problems."
Sleep deprivation is a common form of psychological torture that is used against political prisoners, which I was also subjected to; along with being prevented from washing myself.
The heat, unhygienic conditions and lack of any ventilation mean that lice, scabies and infestations were widespread among prisoners. After just four days in a cell, I began scratching myself red raw to relieve the incessant itching all over my body, finding lice even in my groin area.
Unlike many other Ahwazi detainees, I was eventually released on bail of 400 million Rial (about US$13,000); largely as a result of the serious deterioration of my health. Two days after my release from prison, I collapsed and was rushed to Arvand hospital in Ahwaz city. I required emergency surgery for ruptures to my rectum caused by the multiple rapes.
Since then I’ve had four further operations on my bowels and sphincter, in Raazi hospital in Ahwaz and the latest in Servergazi hospital in Turkey. The severe damage to the bowel muscles inflicted by the rape mean that I still suffer from stress incontinence. Despite the operations, which required the removal of part of my large intestine, I am still in near-constant pain and suffer severe digestive and vomiting problems. My weight before I went into prison was 70 kilos but now is only 54. I am a maimed man and need to go to the doctor every week.
My trial, which began in early 2009, was postponed as a result of my poor health. My lawyer, Hosseini Manesh, was successful in securing the suspension of the proceedings and negotiating for me to finish my university studies. However, the case against me has never been closed.
"I know that if I ever return to Iran I will face immediate arrest, imprisonment, torture and probable execution."
My severe health problems meant that I was unable to return to university for many months. I only completed my degree in 2011. Fearful of re-arrest, I gave up all activism during that period.
The regime didn’t just maim my body, however, but wrecked my future career plans. My record as a cultural activist and human rights campaigner meant that I was blacklisted and unable to secure employment.
In 2011, I felt compelled to resume my peaceful campaigning, following the arrest of six Ahwazi activists associated with Al-Hiwar, an organisation which aimed to raise cultural, civil and political awareness among Ahwazi Arabs by organizing cultural events and free education classes for deprived Arab youth.
All six activists were widely respected community figures. Some were former teachers of mine. They were sentenced to death on trumped up charges of terrorism after an unfair trial. This was later commuted to life imprisonment for three of them and 20 years for another. But Hadi Rashedi and my former lecturer in Arabic literature, Hashem Shabani, also a noted poet, were executed in 2014. The charges against them included Moharebeh (“enmity against God”), Mufsid-fil-Arz (“corruption on earth”) and spreading “propaganda” against the political system.
As a result of my support for these men and the wider cause of Ahwazi human rights, I was constantly monitored by the regime’s intelligence services. They put me under relentless psychological pressure, always trying to find any excuse, however petty, to imprison me again. Security agents would send intimidating, ominous messages using phones with the number withheld. They’d demand I come to their headquarters in Romhormoz. I’d be interrogated for up to nine hours and abused with racist anti-Arab insults such as “Arab lizard-eater...camel’s milk-drinker...bastard Arab parasite.” They also abused my mother and sisters as “whores.” I was bombarded with fake accusations, like claiming I had links with Wahhabi Sunni extremists. There was physical abused too; including being slapped around the face, and having my ears pinched and my hair pulled.
"The Iranian authorities view me and all Ahwazi Arabs as sub-humans, subversives and criminals on account of our Arab ethnicity and desire for freedom. "
Stranded Iranian migrantsat the border between Greece and Macedonia in NovemberAlthough I was terrified, I was determined that the regime would not silence me or the voice of other Ahwazis. I continued publicising the cases of the detained members of Al-Hiwar using information received from their anguished families. This generated global solidarity for the falsely accused men.
In October 2012, I was called back into the intelligence security branch for interrogation, with the officers demanding that I spy on fellow activists. I knew if I refused that I could suffer the same fate as the men on death row. I secretly fled my beloved Ahwazi homeland to Turkey with my wife, where I sought refugee status. Recently, at last, I secured resettlement in the US.
Much as I wish to live in Al-Ahwaz, I know that if I ever return to Iran I will face immediate arrest, imprisonment, torture and probable execution on one or more of the common trumped up charges, such as “acting against Iran’s national security” or “collaborating with foreign agents” and “fomenting anti-Iranian propaganda.”
Even now, my family still face harassment and persecution as a result of my past activism. My father and brother were summoned to the intelligence service's offices in Romhormoz for interrogation. My brother was dismissed from his job as an agricultural engineer at the regime’s behest.
My story is not unusual. The Iranian authorities view me and all Ahwazi Arabs as sub-humans, subversives and criminals on account of our Arab ethnicity and desire for freedom. Ahwazi daily life is tainted by open racism and bigotry. It is encouraged by the Tehran regime, with Arabs being commonly being depicted as “uncivilized barbarians” and “barefoot nomadic peoples.” Any Arab requesting equality, freedom and dignity is regarded and treated as an enemy of the state. Al-Ahwaz is like a giant prison – an Orwellian hell.
I am lucky to have escaped. I am alive and free. Many of my fellow Ahwzai Arabs are in prison or have suffered the hangman’s noose. All of us who survive have just one hope: We dream to be free.