The infamous Sheyban Prison, long known by Ahwazis as an Orwellian torture centre, is nowadays officially called Ahwaz Central Prison.
Located 25 kilometres from the provincial capital Ahwaz City on the road to Mullathani, the sprawling high-security prison complex, comprising 12 buildings, each divided into four units and now surrounded by several guard towers, was originally constructed as a massive residential complex for engineers and other construction staff who travelled from elsewhere in Iran to work at the nearby state-backed Technoprom Exports Corporation, the manufacturer of Ramin power generators sold in Iran. But when Technoprom’s local branch was closed down, the empty residential blocks for workers were converted into what was to become one of the most hated and feared prisons in Ahwaz.
Initially, the Iranian Prisons Organisation claimed that Sheyban Prison was a ‘health centre’ for state detainees; locals, however, knew better. The facility quickly attained notoriety as a ‘black prison’, a secret prison for political prisoners, staffed only by regime security personnel, rather than any medics.
As the number of Ahwazi detainees has grown in recent years in tandem with the regime’s increasingly brutal clampdown on dissent, the regime transferred more and more detainees to the Sheyban Prison, with the number of detainees rising again following the closure of the Karun Prison, whose thousands of inmates were transferred there.
Although the prison’s official capacity is 2,000 detainees, it is known to house more than twice that number, with at least 4,500 currently imprisoned there. Moreover, of its overburdened detainee population, over 90 per cent are Ahwazi citizens.
The most common and notorious features of Sheyban Prison are overcrowding, violence, sexual abuse, and other horrific conditions which pose grave risks to political prisoners’ health and safety. In addition, mistreatment of political prisoners based on their Arab racial identity remains commonplace, and many understand that this mistreatment is deliberate.
Ironically, even while subjecting Ahwazi prisoners to horrendous abuse for their Arab ethnicity, the regime is reportedly attempting to conscript prisoners at Sheyban into joining its fighting in Syria in exchange for reducing their sentences. One recently released former political prisoner from Sheyban told DIRS: “The Revolutionary Guards [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC] has sat with prisoners who have been sentenced to life imprisonment or long sentences in Section 1 of Hall 6 to convince those who would like to join the Iranian army in Syria in return for dropping the charges against them. The political prisoners did not accept, but I heard that people from other wings, such as thieves, have joined the regime forces.”
The overcrowding and atrocious conditions for detainees at Sheyban Prison, which contravene all international human rights law, have been repeatedly highlighted by international human rights bodies. According to Penal Reform International, “International law recognises the right of everyone, including people deprived of their liberty, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. However, in practice, many prisoners receive healthcare of a far inferior standard to that available outside in the community, if they receive treatment at all.”
Given the aforementioned factors, including physical and psychological torture, poor conditions and lack of the most basic medical care, the overall health of prisoners in Sheyban is, unsurprisingly, extremely poor. As former prisoners have testified, this, in turn, has a negative impact on other aspects of inmates’ and former inmates’ mental and physical well-being. For example, it resulted in high rates of communicable diseases, high mortality rates in custody, substance abuse, depression, self-harm, antisocial behaviour, and poor sexual and reproductive health.
The overcrowding, resultant chronic unsanitary conditions, and searing heat in the prison, in an area where summer temperatures often rise to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity levels, further exacerbate prisoners’ suffering and lead to disease spreading fast, with inmates denied the most basic hygiene facilities, such as toilets and showers; prisoners are forced to wait for hours simply to wash themselves or shower, and are often denied even this fundamental right, with the water supply routinely cut off. Showering itself is also problematic since many prisoners are accommodated in the shower block itself due to the overcrowding and lack of space.
Even after their release, many prisoners report suffering from chronic diseases, failing health due to injuries sustained under torture in prison, and poor reproductive health, compounded by lack of healthcare access and poor-quality care.
All these factors, and the regime’s targeting of political prisoners for the harshest abuse, mean that the prison is effectively a place for a slow, agonising death.
Another systematic problem is that the prisoners are rarely allowed visits from their families, with the rare visits that are allowed taking place under heavy guard in a special room where the prisoners can only speak to their loved ones by phone while seated on opposing sides of a plexiglass screen; again, it should be noted that these are mostly political prisoners who have committed no violent crimes. Even during these meetings, there is no privacy, with conversations monitored and controlled, and prison staff often interrupting conversations simply to humiliate prisoners and their loved ones.
In the prison, Hall 6 is reserved for political prisoners and those deemed to ‘threaten’ national security, as well as religious activists, which is to say observant members of minority religions other than Khomeneist Shiites. These prisoners are deprived of any access to books, notebooks and writing materials, newspapers and educational paraphernalia. They are prevented from forming or establishing any educational classes without permission. Sunni activists are allowed to hold classes or prayers under the condition that these are supervised by a Shiite cleric. There are several televisions in the halls purchased by the detainees, who are also deprived of wearing their traditional garb in prison; during family visits, even family members are denied access if they are wearing their traditional Arab clothing, such as dishdashas and traditional headwear.
One former political prisoner told DIRS: “Sheyban prison is called ‘The White Death’ by political prisoners, who are surrounded by four walls and deprived of any rights.”
The former inmate pointed out that many of the political prisoners are also transferred there as a form of exile from other areas of Iran, saying that among the exiled inmates currently detained at the prison are Ayub Pargar, a member of the Mojahedin Organisation from Tehran, Sakhi Rigi of Sistan and Baluchistan and Ismail Wafa’i, a Baha’i citizen.
The former prisoner also recalled the starvation-level rations of often rancid food at the prison, saying, “Sheyban prisoners’ food is delivered to a contractor. It’s of poor quality and in tiny quantities. This is the biggest barrier for all prisoners, where the amount of food doesn’t protect the prisoner from hunger or from food poisoning.” If prisoners complain about the food or anything else, they are threatened with being sent to prisons elsewhere in Iran, far from their families and homeland; this is no idle threat, with one Ahwazi prisoner who repeatedly complained about the food at the prison being transferred to a prison in Aligoudarz city in Lorestan Province, 400 kilometres away from Ahwaz. The only way for prisoners to avoid the prison food is to pay bribes to staff to smuggle in food from their families, although most lack the funds to do so.
The prison cells, each measuring less than 12 metres, are woefully overcrowded, with each housing between 20 and 27 bunk beds. In this at least, the political and ‘national security’ prisoners are marginally more fortunate, with their dormitory cells each holding 20 bunk beds, while the others can hold up to 27 each.
While disease is widespread, and prisoners are routinely subjected to brutal torture and abuse, no healthcare is available. Even those suffering from chronic illnesses are systematically denied medical care. Even when prisoners are dangerously ill or suffering from life-threatening injuries, they cannot be transferred to hospital without prior consultation in writing between the prison authorities and the regime’s intelligence services. Even in cases where this is allowed, prisoners must first submit a formal request to a regime ‘revolutionary court’, which must be approved before they can be transferred to a hospital where any treatment is provided at the prisoners’ or their families’ expense, and under the supervision of security forces.
For political prisoners, these conditions are even more restrictive; they are prohibited from leaving the prison under any circumstances, and they can only receive a limited range of often ineffectual basic medicine via a prescription issued by the prison doctor; often, this means that those suffering from chronic diseases are issued basic painkillers usually given for headaches.
These actions by Iran have long since been ignored by the international community and Western countries. Instead, under the policy of non-intervention, the West has allowed Iran to abuse its biggest opponents, in particular Ahwazi Arabs and other non-Persian nations, who have been disproportionally arrested on political or trumped-up charges. As a result, Iran has been able to fracture the opposition through sweeping crackdowns and mass arrests.
By the time prisoners leave confinement – if they ever do, after being subjected to torture and lack of medical treatment for various normally preventable illnesses – they are irreparably broken or have to deal with physical and psychological issues that may never resolve. This is no byproduct of a broken system but the deliberate goal of the regime.
Iran spreads fear and paranoia by using the justice system to terrorise its population into silence and subjugation. However, even such extensive brutality has not stopped determined Ahwazis and many others from protesting against the regime’s terror and from exposing its iniquities. Still, such determination is met with silence. Now is the time when the regime is weakened and paranoid. It is spreading rumours that everyone is suspected of being a spy for Americans, which is an excellent opportunity to pressure the regime on its human rights issues and to invest in mass campaigns to release its political prisoners and improve conditions for everyone who has been detained. By turning a blind eye to this gross miscarriage of justice, the international community is ultimately failing its own interest in holding the regime accountable and weakening its chokehold of fear over the region.”
One of the political prisoners at Sheyban, Ali Mazraeh, who suffers an agonisingly painful spinal condition which has immobilised him, has been sent to hospital only once, with his family meeting the costs. Although the hospital doctors diagnosed him as requiring an immediate surgical operation to correct his condition, he was returned to the prison over two years ago without any surgery or other meaningful medical treatment.
Another political prisoner at Sheyban, Jaber Sakhrawi, who was arrested on 26 March 2014, suffers from the degenerative illness Multiple Sclerosis (MS), which has been exacerbated by his enduring complete paralysis in one foot, testicular swelling and severe abdominal problems, all three latter medical conditions caused by repeated torture. All his medications are provided by his family, with no prison authorities or regime intelligence services taking any account of his deteriorating medical condition and need for treatment. Sakhrawi has asked the prison’s authorities several times to be transferred for treatment but received no answer.
The prison management’s response to the rampant prevalence of chronic disease and related conditions has been to distribute methadone pills, more commonly prescribed as a substitute for recovering heroin addicts; in Sections 3 and 4 of Sheyban, around 1,300 prisoners are given methadone as a ‘cure’ for stomach ailments.
To a Western audience, the conditions of this prison must appear to be a relic from the medieval era, a horror story of dark times when powerful men could throw their enemies into deep cells, to never see the light of day again. But this is no mere horror story like in a movie. Instead, this is what the Iranian regime’s opponents face right now, especially its Ahwazi opponents.
When asked for comment, attorney Aaron Eitan Meyer hesitated, before shaking his head and saying, “in our comfortable homes, in our comfortable country, reports of prisons like this really do feel like something out of a horror novel. And we do use terms like horrific far too often, colloquially; we also overuse the word heroic for similar reasons. Yet here, both are completely accurate. What the regime is doing is horrific, and one could argue downright bestial. It is criminal, and it is violative of international law without any legitimate doubt. By the same token, we must recognise the fundamental heroism of those regime opponents who repeatedly stand up to it even knowing what lies in store for them. It would be a mistake to think that the Ahwazi resistance is the result of desperation; it is a perfect example of bravery in the classical sense of the term. And speaking from our comfortable confines looking at the regime’s atrocities from afar, we must first ensure that these prisoners do not become faceless victims. Not simply because the regime is flagrantly violating international law and its own constitution, and not even because the cause of the Ahwazi people is just, but because bravery like this must be recognised and respected.”
We once more call upon international human rights organisations to recognise the violation of human rights that is ongoing – and escalating – within Iranian prisons, and to take concrete and sustained action to compel the regime to begin complying with fundamental human rights law. There is no excuse for the regime’s crimes, and there can be no more delays, no more faceless victims buried in the dark of night by a vicious regime. The world must act, and soon.
By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.