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Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran last month.

The death of a young Iranian in custody for allegedly taking part in antiestablishment protests has heightened fears of brutal official reprisals against detained protesters and other perceived dissidents following the worst street demonstrations Iran has seen in nearly a decade.

Iranian activists probing the fates of detainees during protests and other unrest that erupted late last month reported on January 7 that 22-year-old Sina Ghanbari had died in prison of "unknown causes. "

The activists, who include lawyers and volunteers including individuals caught in past crackdowns like the one after a disputed presidential election in 2009, say their self-styled committee was informed of Ghanbari's death by other detainees following their release.

Well after the unconfirmed reports, the head of the prison authority in Tehran Province on January 8 said that Ghanbari had hanged himself in a prison lavatory.

"On the morning of Saturday, January 6, one of the prisoners, Sina Ghanbari, son of Ali Akbar, visited the lavatory of the quarantine section and hanged himself," Mostafa Mohebi told the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

Mohebi said a prosecutor had come to the prison and interviewed "prison guards and those informed" while also issuing "necessary orders."

The activists committee said via an announcement by activist Mehdi Mahmudian, a journalist and member of the reformist Participation Front who spent time in jail in 2009, that Ghanbari had been held in the quarantine section of Tehran's Evin prison, where detainees are frequently held before being taken to a general ward.

Fears Of Another Kahrizak

Mahmudian was reportedly crucial in informing the public about the abuses at Kahrizak, a detention facility where abuses were alleged in 2009.

Two Iranian lawmakers subsequently confirmed Ghanbari's death and suggested that the young man had committed suicide while in detention but did not offer details.

"This 22-year-old young man was arrested by the police. I was informed that he had committed suicide in jail," reformist lawmaker Tayebeh Siavashi was quoted as saying by the semiofficial ILNA news agency.

Another reformist lawmaker, Mahmud Sadeghi, made a similar statement to Etemadonline, saying that he had been informed through an unnamed "intelligence official" that Ghanbari had committed suicide in Evin.

Writing on Twitter, Sadeghi warned Iranian officials about a repeat of events following the 2009 protests, when reports emerged of detainees held at the Kahrizak detention center in Tehran being tortured and raped. At least three of those detainees died as the result of torture, rights groups reported.

"I'm warning the president along with judiciary and intelligence officials of a second Kahrizak," Sadeghi tweeted.

At least 22 other deaths have been reported in connection with the December-January protests but Ghanbari's is the first report of a death in custody.

"This news is like a knife stabbing the hearts of those whose young ones are in prison," said Mohammad Aghazadeh, whose son, Soheil Aghazadeh, is among some 80 students arrested recently.

"Even if [the news] is true, what did you do to them that they prefer to die than to tolerate your actions?" Aghazadeh asked in a separate tweet.

Wave Of 'Preventive' Arrests?

Some of the detained students were reportedly not among the protesters, but details are difficult to confirm due to official secrecy and restrictions on reporting in Iran.

An Iranian lawmaker said on January 5 that the authorities said that most of the students had been arrested as a "preventive measure."

Iranian authorities said that at least 450 people were arrested over a three-day span after the protests began in western Iran in late December. Subsequent reports suggest that well over 1,500 people have been arrested across the country, with some estimates much higher.

Dozens of detainees are said to have been released in recent days. However, hundreds remain in jail, and little has been said officially about their conditions.

Authorities have warned some of the families of those arrested not to speak to the media.

Kasra Nuri, a member of the Sufi Gonabadi order who previously spent several years in prison for his activism, is among those arrested. His mother, Shokoufeh Yadollahi, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Nuri had not participated in any of the recent antiestablishment protests.

"It's not clear why he was arrested. Kasra and three of his friends had gone to the Dey hospital [in Tehran] to visit a friend when security forces arrested them while using electric shockers and firing shots into the air," Yadollahi said in a telephone interview.

She added that her son was being held in Section 209 of Evin prison. Yadollahi and family members of him and of other detainees have gathered in front on the prison to appeal for their release.

Amnesty International demanded on January 4 that Iranian authorities "protect hundreds of detainees from torture and other ill-treatment."

"Given the alarming scale of the current wave of arrests, it is highly likely that many of those held are peaceful protesters who have been detained arbitrarily and now find themselves in prisons where conditions are dire and torture is a common tool to extract confessions and punish dissidents," Amnesty International's research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Philip Luther, said.

K., a transgender woman, says she faced death threats back home in Uzbekistan before applying for asylum in Belarus.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Uzbekistan face deep-rooted homophobia, discrimination, and the threat of violence, activists and human rights defenders say.

And so it was for K., as she identifies herself for security reasons, a transgender woman who says she indeed faced death threats back home in Uzbekistan.

She was detained in Tashkent by Uzbek police and security forces four times between 2014 and 2017.

Each time, they demanded that K. out other members of the LGBT community, and when she refused she was brutally beaten.

"I was beaten badly. After five or six days [of such abuse] you just lie there," the 26-year-old K. tells RFE/RL's Belarus Service in an interview from Minsk.

Uzbekistan’s authoritarian ruler Islam Karimov died in 2016 after nearly 27 years in power. But his death and the installation of former Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev as president failed to usher in any meaningful improvements in Uzbekistan’s "abysmal human rights record," as Human Rights Watch has described it.

Blackmail, Extortion

HRW said that police use blackmail and extortion against gay men, threatening to out or imprison them. LGBT people face deep-rooted homophobia and discrimination. Consensual homosexual sex is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison.

For K., the "final decision to leave" came on January 3, 2017, when she was raped while in police custody.

Getting out of Uzbekistan was tricky though.

"I was born in disputed territory which became disputed after the collapse of the Soviet Union," says K. "At that time there were no borders, and this area belongs to Tajikistan. There was a massive outflow of the population -- to Russia and neighboring countries. And those who came to Uzbekistan have yet to be granted citizenship."

That made her essentially a "stateless" person. Despite that, Uzbek authorities did issue her with an exit visa -- a practice inherited from the Soviet days -- after a six-month wait.

She headed for Moscow, but authorities there on December 25 turned down her asylum request, refusing to recognize her LGBT persecution as justifiable grounds.

Next up was Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled since 1994 and earned the moniker of "Europe's last dictator."

Bad Reputation

Belarus is far from a safe haven for the LGBT community, but to K. it seemed to be her best option, and Belarus authorities earlier this week granted K. two weeks to formally submit an asylum request.

However, the country suffers from a bad reputation when it comes to LGBT rights.

Amnesty International said in a report on December 22 that LGBT rights activists were facing rising hostilities in parts of the former Soviet Union, including Belarus, fueled by discrimination, homophobia, and what it described as Russia's crusade against "nontraditional sexual relations."

Belarus's LGBT intolerance was on full display a few months earlier in October 2017 when police raided nightclubs popular with the LGBT community, during which two clubs were shuttered and patrons were harassed, some even detained by police.

"The reports out of Belarus are alarming. It is alarming that police targeted legal businesses, violated the privacy of their patrons, demanded personal information, and dragged some away to detention," said Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord on October 24.

Room For Tolerance

On the international stage, Minsk has blocked efforts to advance LGBT rights.

In October 2016, Belarus reportedly led a group of 17 countries to block a plan to include LGBT rights in a new urban strategy crafted by the United Nations, according to Reuters.

There is, however, some room for tolerance within the law.

Belarusian rights activist Natalia Mankovskaya.
Belarusian rights activist Natalia Mankovskaya.

"Our legislation allows a person to ask for protection when a person belongs to a particular social group and for this reason he or she is being persecuted at home," says Belarusian human rights activist Natalia Mankovskaya.

According to Mankovskaya, after submitting an asylum application, K. can legally stay in Belarus for up to six months while a decision is being reached.

"We also appeal to the Minsk office of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to grant K. international protection," says Mankovskaya.

For K., her options are limited. She wants to avoid at all costs returning to Uzbekistan, where she says she would face charges for her sexual orientation.

"I hope that I am granted some type of status here, so I can avoid what I've already faced," K. says. "This is a much more tolerant society."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on material from RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Alyaksandra Dynko


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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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