This article addresses the consequences of the perilous conditions faced by Ahwazi prisoners. In particular, it focuses on the impacts of incarceration on their mental health and that of their families. The plurality of issues affecting Ahwazi prisoners has resulted in adverse, long-term psychological effects. These effects traumatise the inmates and have had lasting impacts on their families. The families of the prisoners, faced with the harsh reality of their imprisonment, live in agony. In addition, the mental health consequences surrounding the path to – and process of – the imprisonment of Ahwazi convicts is discussed.
Key words: Ahwazi prisoners, family, mental health, trauma, prisoner’ s rights, depression.
Mass incarceration in Iran is a very diffused phenomenon. Within Iranian prisons, incarceration seems ubiquitous, encompassing mental confinement as well as physical captivity in conditions of indescribable barbarism. Threats of rape, execution, and various forms of torture – including burning different body parts, mutilation, electric shocks, and continuous beatings – are just some of the brutal punishments faced by political prisoners. Cruel and prolonged cycles of torture are the norm rather than the exception, and seem endless to the victims. Detainees are routinely thrashed and electrocuted. Additionally, prisoners are left without food, and at best given virtually inedible meals made with rotten or putrid contents intentionally designed to deter them from eating so that they suffer malnutrition.
Any protest by prisoners concerning the food quality is met with torture. For example, 32-year-old Hassan Bayt Abdullah, from the village of Beyt Khalaf Moslem near the city of Susa, was arrested in mid-October 2015 on charges of ‘enmity against God’ and ‘acting against national security’, charges commonly used against dissidents. After reportedly being tortured into confessing his ‘guilt’, he was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment following a typical kangaroo trial lasting a few minutes at a regime ‘revolutionary court’, where his forced confession was used as the sole evidence against him. As is standard practice, he was denied any legal representation.
Fellow inmates at the Masjid Suleiman Prison in Ahwaz recently managed to smuggle a message to Hassan’s family to inform them that, due to Hassan’s defence of his fellow prisoners, including his efforts to get prison staff to provide enough food and clean drinking water, he is repeatedly subjected to horrific torture. The inmates reported to his family that prison guards dragged Hassan to the prison courtyard from the overcrowded cell where he’s kept with other inmates. There, the guards ripped off his clothes, leaving him in his underwear in the freezing winter cold, before tying him by his hands and feet to a crucifix erected in the yard, and beating and whipping him till he fell unconscious. The other inmates reported that while beating and whipping Hassan, the guards screamed vile, racist anti-Arab abuse at him, with one of the guards telling him that their beating was a “lesson for others who dare to raise their voices to us, you Arab asshole”.
The living conditions are unconscionable. On top of the intolerable physical conditions, the prisoners are subjected to relentless psychological pressure and uncertainty about the near future, as they live in constant danger. Their families face the additional pressures of raids, threats, psychological manipulation, and financial extortion by the authorities. Consequently, the prisoners and their families live under constant extreme duress, with both the detainees and their family members facing emotional and psychological traumas, such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression. These mental issues routinely go untreated.
Prisoners’ Rights According to International Law
Whether or not prisoners are found guilty, they are still entitled to certain universal rights, even though their rights are not entirely statutory. “The United Nations Human Rights Office outlines the basic principles of international law concerning the treatment of prisoners:
- All prisoners should be treated with respect due to their essential dignity and value as human beings.
- All prisoners must retain all the human rights and vital freedoms that are established in the Universal statements of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
- There should be no discernment regarding race, colour, sex, language, religion, political judgement, national or social origin, goods, birth or other rank.
- It is required to reverence the religious beliefs and cultural precepts of the group to which prisoners fit.
- The culpability of penitentiaries for the care of prisoners and for the defence of society against crime shall be settled in keeping with a State’s other social purposes and its central tasks for indorsing the well-being and expansion of all members of society.
- All prisoners shall have the right to take part in enlightening activities and education intended at the full development of the human disposition.
- Efforts spoken to the elimination of solitary incarceration as a penalty, should be assumed and fortified.
- Circumstances shall be created empowering prisoners to commence meaningful compensated employment. This condition helps them to contribute to their own financial support and to that of their families.
- Convicts should have access to the health facilities available without discrimination on the grounds of their lawful condition. These values should be applied objectively.
How Iran Violates the Rights of Ahwazi Prisoners
Based on the aforementioned universal rights, all countries are obligated to implement these principles in order to ensure humane treatment of prisoners in their detention facilities. However, multiple reports issued by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, as well as by various Ahwazi human rights activists, have demonstrated that prisoners’ rights are routinely violated in Iran, with Ahwazi prisoners being put under severe emotional and psychological pressure. As such, Iran has been criticised both by Iranians and international human right activists, writers, and NGOs. The United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly condemned the ongoing physical and psychological abuses against Iranian prisoners, and has published several resolutions critiquing the regime.
International law unequivocally prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, without exception or derogation. Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in addition, mandates that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” It also requires that “the reform and social preadaptation of prisoners” be an “indispensable purpose” of captivity.
In Iran, however, prisoners’ rights are completely disregarded, with detainees subjected daily to systematic abuse in a manner that utterly dehumanises them. The regime shows the same disregard for international laws prohibiting prejudice on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, or political orientation. In Iranian jails, Ahwazi prisoners, most of whom identify as ethnic Arabs, face constant discrimination on the grounds of their ethnicity because they constitute a minority group in Iran, which has been systematically politically marginalised, oppressed and subjugated by the ethnically Persian majority for almost a century. For instance, during the COVID-19 outbreak, 85.000 prisoners were temporarily granted release from the regime’s jails – none of those released originated from Ahwaz. This is just one of many clear demonstrations of how overt and systemic the racism towards the people of Ahwaz truly is. This targeting of Ahwazi prisoners and the lack of any support creates a widespread sense of despair and depression among detainees which results in a traumatised state that also affects their families. Amnesty has reported a 2019 decision by a Polish court, addressing the issues of systematic discrimination and political persecution by the Iranian authorities on these grounds.
Trauma and Prisoners
Trauma is a subjective response to a deeply painful or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s capacity to cope, causing feelings of feebleness, diminishing the sense of self and the ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences in the process. Indeed, even anxiety over a brutal event can be overwhelmingly stressful when the event in question involves a family member or friend. Academics writing about trauma rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for diagnosis of this phenomenon, with the term often used interchangeably with posttraumatic stress disorder, which is a psychiatric diagnosis.
The Case of Rahman Asakereh
For Ahwazi activists, the consequences of imprisonment vary greatly depending on the individual, and can be psychologically devastating, with the horrendous prison conditions in Iran being unlike those in other nations around the world.
Rahman Asakereh, a chemistry teacher, cultural activist and one of the members of the Al-Hiwar (Dialogue) institute from Khalifeyeh (Ramshir) city, was arrested in November 2011 and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by the notoriously harsh Judge Sayed Mohammad Baqir Mousavi, the head of the Ahwaz Revolutionary Court Branch Two. The charges issued against him were “enmity to God, spreading sedition on earth, acting against the regime and distributing anti-regime propaganda.” Although he was expelled outside the Ahwaz region to Mashhad Prison – an additional, unofficial punishment commonly applied to ensure that prisoners’ families are unable to visit them regularly – he was recently returned to the Masjid Suleiman Prison in the Ahwaz region. Since his detention, Rahman, who was formerly a healthy and fit man, has been afflicted by several medical conditions due to the horrific conditions and abuse he’s experience in prison, including elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rahman’s family has also suffered immense trauma due to his imprisonment, with his wife left to independently raise and provide for their children, one of whom developed a drug addiction problem, adding to her ordeal. Due to the family’s poverty caused by Rahman’s imprisonment, his daughter was married at age 16 simply to have some means of economic survival. Rahman’s father, meanwhile, died of heart disease largely caused by the stress of his beloved son’s incarceration.
Based on interviews conducted with some Ahwazi families, most prisoners have experienced some degree of mental deterioration during their detention. In these conditions, they often experience a severe psychological dissociation as a means of mentally escaping their suffering, which includes relentless racist abuse and degradation, as well as physical torture. Other psychological disorders, such as severe paranoia and panic attacks are widespread, with clinical depression being routine. For the regime, reducing prisoners to this wretched state, effectively breaking their minds and spirits completely, is a primary objective. Finally, the incarceration experience evokes a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. greater dependence, and introversion and often impairs Ahwazi prisoners’ critical thinking skills and decision-making abilities.
The Case of the Heidarian Brothers
Another case is that of three Ahwazi brothers: Abdul Rahman Heidarian, Taha Heidarian, and Abbas Heidarian. The three brothers, all of whom were married with children, were executed along with a fellow Ahwazi activist, Ali Sharifi and four other Ahwazi activists, all from the city of Mallashiyeh in Ahwaz, on June 18, 2012, after being transferred to an unknown location. Their families have so far received no information about the location of their burials. With its customary cruelty, the regime deliberately adds to the suffering of these deceased prisoners’ families, who not only suffer the heartbreak of having their worst fears realised on hearing about their husbands’ fathers’ and sons’ deaths in prison, but are denied even the opportunity to know where they are buried or visit their graves to mourn them, adding insult to injury and further trauma to their grief. As a result, their wives, children and other family members now suffer from anxiety disorders, living in a state of despair and grief. Their sense of loss is compounded by the unknown circumstances surrounding their loved ones’ execution and the fate of their bodies.
These conditions are particularly harsh for political activists, with the psychological trauma which many prisoners are forced to endure in order to survive the prison experience damaging and putting a strain on their relationships in the outside world.
One Ahwazi woman whose husband is a political prisoner currently being held in an Iranian regime prison, has spoken out about the trauma inflicted on her and her children. The woman, whose name is withheld here to protect her and her husband’s safety, said, “We have three children – two girls, and one boy. Even before my husband was sentenced to 15 years in prison and exiled to a jail outside the Ahwaz region for his activism, my children got traumatised by the regime forces raiding our home. They came in the middle of the night and took him a couple of times, wearing balaclavas and carrying guns. We’d be asleep and they’d kick the door in, shouting and beating my husband. When they took him away, they’d beat him, then blindfold him and tie his hands behind his back. The last time, they ransacked the house and confiscated my husband’s books and his computer. “Our youngest child, who’s 13, wets the bed now – I’ve taken her to many doctors, and they all said it’s because of fear and stress from her experiences. All our children are suffering from severe depression due to their dad’s absence – they keep asking me what he did to be put in prison. Every time he’s arrested, it’s so traumatic for them – they suffer nightmares and lose all interest in their schoolwork and homework due to worrying about and missing their dad.”
Ahwazi writer and human rights activist Rahim Hamid said that it’s often forgotten that political prisoners’ families are traumatised and devastated as much as prisoners themselves, with the remaining parent, usually the mother, becoming the sole breadwinner for the family. Many detainees’ children, particularly the older ones, end up dropping out of school, feeling compelled to take any work in order to help feed the family. This harsh environment and lack of support mean that many of these children end up in a spiral of low-paid jobs, depression, and substance abuse.
The horrendous prison conditions for Ahwazi detainees generally exacerbate mental health problems among them. Malnutrition over a long period is the main contributing factor in the ailments affecting prisoners, particularly dental hygiene and digestive or stomach problems, affecting prisoners. Inadequate provision of health care and severe malnutrition in Iranian prisons seems to be the cause of poor health of the majority of the Ahwaz detainees. Continued monitoring of long-term prisoners by independent bodies is needed to monitor and improve their physical health. Ahwazi prisoners don’t enjoy any of their international mandated legal rights supposedly conferred on every human being. Instead, they experience systematic abuses specifically intended to humiliate them. Their families are treated with contempt and disrespect in a manner that completely destroys them emotionally and psychologically. This vicious cycle of cruel treatment towards the prisoners causes mental illnesses which then impact their families accordingly. Their inhumane treatment behind bars must end. The United Nations Human must recognise the plight of Ahwazi prisoners and call of the Iranian regime to immediately grant them their rights as afforded to them by international law.
By: Teuta Orgocka, A Canadian human rights activist based in Toronto. You can follow her on her twitter account: https://twitter.com/OrgockaTeuta