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'Verge Of Death': Iranian Activist Alleges Jail Torture, Challenges Minister To TV Debate

Iranian activist Esmail Bakhshi was arrested in November for organizing weeks-long protests at a sugar factory.

Iranian activist Esmail Bakhshi has been out of jail for a month, but says he still bears the physical and psychological scars from being tortured "to the verge of death" during his 25-day jail stay in Khuzestan Province.

Bakhshi was arrested on November 20 for his role in weeks-long protests over unpaid salaries at a local sugar factory. He was charged with disruption of public order and collusion against national security and spent weeks in jail before his release on bail on December 12.

Now Bakhshi's claims have shined a light into the greater issue of prisoner mistreatment and torture, which rights group say is widespread, and have prompted parliament to launch an investigation.

'Intolerable Pain'

"Weeks after my release, I still feel intolerable pain in my broken ribs, left ear, and testicles," Bakhshi wrote in an Instagram post on January 5 in which he detailed the alleged abuse he endured.

"I was so badly battered that I could not move for 72 hours in my solitary confinement cell," he added. "The pain was so unbearable that it made sleeping impossible."

During his detention, activists claimed, Bakhshi suffered internal bleeding and injuries to his head and face stemming from interrogations at the jail in Ahvaz, the capital of oil-rich Khuzestan Province, in southwestern Iran.

In his Instagram post, Bakhshi expounded on the situation, saying that both he and journalist Sepideh Qolian, who was arrested at the same time, were subjected to psychological torture.

"What was interesting was that the torturers, who called themselves soldiers of the Imam [a revered figure among Shi'ite Muslims], attacked me and Ms. Qolian with abusive sexual profanity while beating us," Bakhshi wrote.

He also claimed that his interrogators told him his phone was bugged long before his arrest. "While beating me, one of the interrogators said that they knew everything about me, including a dispute with my wife over my labor-rights activities," Bakhshi wrote.

Balkhshi challenged Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi, a mid-ranking cleric, to a live TV debate concerning the alleged torture of detainees.

"As a cleric, and from the moral and human rights point of view, tell us what is the sentence for those who torture prisoners? Is torturing prisoners permissible? If it is, to what extent? Does the ministry you run have the right to secretly monitor private telephone conversations?"

'Source Of Shame'

Iranian media reported that a parliament committee has been authorized to investigate Bakhshi's claims after lawmakers requested a probe.

Ali Motahari, an outspoken member of parliament, wrote a column in the reformist Etemad daily on January 6 in which he said Bakhshi's claims were a "source of shame" and demanded answers from the Intelligence Ministry.

Gholamreza Shariati, the governor of Khuzestan, denied Bakhshi's claims. "I checked with the relevant bodies and the claim of torture was strongly denied," he told the Jamaran news website.

International human rights groups have long alleged that torture is widespread during the interrogation of detainees in Iran, including rape and other sexual violence, electric shock, and amputations.

Rights groups have also alleged that medical treatment is denied to certain categories of detainees, especially prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, and human rights defenders.

Strikes Hit Iran

The protests at Haft Tapeh, which has around 4,000 workers, largely ended in December after the workers received their wages.

Iran has seen multiple strikes and protests in recent months over working conditions and unpaid wages in a range of sectors, including steel, education, mining, and transportation.

Iran is in the grip of an economic crisis and has seen sporadic protests in recent months.

The United States reimposed economic sanctions on Iran in early November, targeting Tehran's crucial oil, transportation, and financial sectors.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.