By Aida Qajar
January 25, 2019
He plays some Turkmen music on his phone while translating the words for me. The refrain in all Turkmen songs is the same, he says: the sound of horses trotting.
This is the first time I have met an activist from this region of Iran, Turkmen Sahra. He is a short, skinny boy, and when he tells me his story I cannot believe how he survived.
“We Turkmen have experienced worse than this,” he says. “We are not afraid of death.”
Izmir is my last stop in Turkey in my investigation into human trafficking. I have met several Iranians during my journey, but Danial is one of the most courageous and compelling.
Danial was just a freshman when he was jailed for his civic activism in college. In prison he experienced the worst kinds of torture, including beatings and mock hangings.
When he was summoned for questioning a second time after being released, he could not bear a repeat of this abuse. Instead he chose to flee Iran for Turkey.
Yet even here in Izmir, he says, his interrogator and the Islamic Republic’s cyber army continue to harass and intimidate him.
Treated Like Criminals
Danial now does not care now where he lives. He only needs a safe place, he says. He wants to be a spokesperson for Turkmen people, who have been oppressed for decades – though few people know about them.
He opens the Telegram app on his phone and shows me Tuhra channel, an online platform he runs that allows him to be the voice of Turkmen Sahra on social media.
“Believe it or not, there are even fellow Iranians who don’t know where Turkmen Sahra is,” he says, smiling. “When I used to introduce myself as a Turkmen activist, some Iranians would look at me, surprised, asking ‘do we even have activists in Turkmen Sahra?’”
He describes the difficulties faced by his people. “Since there is not much fertile land in Turkmen Sahra, the main income for locals is fishing. But Turkmen fishermen are treated like Kurdish smugglers.
“The territorial waters and each country’s share in the Caspian Sea are not clear, so coastguards shoot at the fishermen without any warning.
“Many fishing boats have been torn apart by coastguard speedboats, and many fishermen have lost their lives trying to provide for their families.”
He adds: “The issue recently gained some international attention, and the United Nations (UN) Special Reporter, Asma Jahangir, was investigating the issue before her death.”
Another challenge for Turkmen, like other ethnic groups in Iran, is receiving schooling in their mother tongue. This is banned by the government, which cracks down on those who break the rules. Undeterred, Danial encouraged teaching in Turkmen and even created a Turkmen dictionary.
Similarly, Turkmen religious education has been almost fully eliminated from Iranian classrooms because of their Sunni affiliation. Turkmen people practice Hanafi, which is summarized in just two pages in the Islamic Republic’s official textbooks.
The state has also changed many Turkmen cities and street names, which Danial believes is an attempt to wipe the region from the map.
“People Have Given Up Hope”
Although many of these policies began during the rule of the Shah, the situation got worse after 1979, he says. Pahlavi at least provided Turkmen with the exclusive production of fish and caviar from the Caspian Sea. But after the Iranian Revolution, the Shia mullahs took control.
They first declared caviar as “haram”, then made it “halal” again due to its considerable profit. Turkmen traders were replaced by state-approved employees. They lost their jobs, lands, and capital.
Turkmen people are still afraid of losing their lands and therefore hide their title deeds.If the authorities become aware of their properties, Danial says, they will almost certainly confiscate them.”
“This was not only about houses and farmland. They even confiscated pastureland from the shepherds and established military bases there to suppress any possible unrest in Turkmen Sahra.
“One example is the village of Oqi-Tape, in which the locals voiced their concerns. They were beaten severely and faced long prison time.”
Activism began in Turkmen Sahra after 1979, Danial says. “We said no to the referendum for the Islamic Republic. And the Republic has suppressed us ever since.”
But now when he introduces himself as an activist from this region, no-one knows about their struggles – or even their existence. Few other Turkmen are taking up the fight, he says.
“People have given up hope. They say: ‘We can’t get anything ever. We are Sunnis and have no right in a Shia regime. The only way we might get something is through connections and people in power, not through protests.’”
Their proximity to Turkmenistan is another reason for Iran’s paranoia. Yet Turkmen people are opposed to this regime too, Danial stresses. The president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, is one of the world’s most repressive dictators. He is also one of Danial’s cousins.
“Turkmenistan is governed by tribes, although they are a registered nation with the UN,” Danial says. “Iranian Turkmen people would never want to join this regime.”
“They Invaded My Home Like Mongols”
So how did Danial end up in Izmir, Turkey?
In 2013, when he finished his freshman year as an electrical engineer at Gorgan University, somebody called to request a CD to teach them English. This was his job: to copy and sell educational CDs at home. He was supposed to meet them somewhere in his neighborhood.
“My neighborhood is a ghetto full of criminals. When I was waiting for the customer, I saw blacked-out cars and agents rushing all around me. At first, I thought they were after one of the criminals. But then a car stopped next to me and the passengers got out while filming me.
“One of them said ‘lay down and shut up!’ and another one said ‘check him for guns!’ I was like, what are you talking about? But they searched me and said they needed to go to my home.
“They were intelligence officers and showed me the paperwork for my arrest and searching my home. They invaded my home like Mongols. One was digging up the garden, while another one was destroying the pantry, looking for guns.
“They ruined the satellite dish and searched the refrigerator for alcoholic beverages. In the midst of all of this, they even ordered us to turn on the air-con.”
They confiscated his computer, CDs, movies, and many other personal belongings. He was later charged with “Insulting the Supreme Leader”, “Insulting Shia Imams”, and “Keeping Pornographic CDs”.
Danial laughs when telling this story, but it was clearly a deeply traumatic time. The agents confiscated a silver coin that he inherited from his ancestors, as well as a freemason costume. “The agents said to me, ‘So you’re a Satanist as well.’”
One of the most important and irreplaceable items the agents took was his research on world religions, to which he dedicated four years of his life.
Whippings and Mock Hangings
So what terrible crime did he commit that prompted this arrest?
“We would organize peaceful protests in front of the governor’s office, but our activities were mainly cultural,” he says. “We had our own hiking and climbing clubs and were distributing subtitled music videos. My dad is a poet and my mom sings. I grew up with music.”
When taking him to prison, agents advised him to say yes to anything they asked if he wanted to have “an easy time”. Danial says he was “immature” and accepted their terms.
However, he served 10 days in solitary confinement, including on his birthday. He was tortured from the moment he set foot in the prison.
“My face was swollen from beatings and my finger was cut. They hanged me with a rope. They dictated what they wanted me to write to expose other activists. I could not do that, so they continued to punch me. They even undressed and whipped me.
“Prior to this, I had no encounter with the law enforcement agencies. I was my family’s only son, and when I was arrested our neighbors called my parents, who were in Tehran at the time, to notify them.”
He adds: “I was in love with movies and was collecting them. The interrogator asked me why I kept them and I told him it was to improve my English. He said, ‘Your parents are also watching these and have some action in the night, right?’ Those were his exact words.”
At Daniel’s hearing, the court sentenced him to 23 months, which was reduced to 15 months at appeal.
In protest against his treatment, Daniel decided to go on hunger strike. His thin body struggled to cope and after three days he collapsed. Soon afterward he was released on a 200 million rial (US$4,750) bail.
But release did not mean respite. Intelligence agents would call him biweekly to ask for his cooperation in identifying other activists. He knew they would come after him again and that he needed to leave the country. His family agreed.
Rot in Prison or Try for Freedom
One of his uncles, who is a well-known figure among Baha’is in Karaj, found him a human trafficker who would take him to Turkey. The trip would cost 700 million rial (US$16,625). The trafficker told him he would only walk for a few minutes during the trip, to pass the border.
It was early March when the trafficker asked him to go to Karaj and wait for him. Two days later their trip to Maku started.
“I was not afraid anymore,” Danial says. “I thought, I can either go and rot in prison or try my chance at freedom, even if it costs me my life. By leaving the country illegally, I at least have the chance to get to Turkey.”
They began their journey at 5 am. From the road, it took Danial, three Baha’i travelers, and the human trafficker two hours to climb the mountain to reach the border. On the other side of the barbed wire lay Turkey.
They were happy that freedom was so close. But as they tried to cross, Turkish border patrols noticed them and began to shoot and chase them.
“I was afraid and couldn’t breathe,” says Danial. “I was running full force and my lungs could not keep up. I looked back and saw hundreds of travelers running from the soldiers. Every couple of minutes a runner would drop down from a bullet, and many just surrendered.
“I still remember that day clearly. I could feel the bullets passing my head by a few centimeters. I was thinking to myself that prison was better. I just wanted to survive.”
Daniel took cover behind a large rock and called the trafficker. He and the Baha’is were supposed to leave with a group of 50 travelers but were now stranded with hundreds in the middle of the mountains on the Iranian side of the border.
The trafficker took some time to find them. When he arrived, he took them to a border village and sheltered them in a stable.
“When he opened the door, I was terrified to see the scene. I did not see such a scene even in prison. There were people from all around the world: Tunisians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Indians. It was a 3m by 5m room with 85 people in it.
“We had to sleep on top of each other, and to go to the bathroom we had to beg them for hours.”
A few days later they moved on again. This time the path was far more dangerous, and a small slip could be deadly. By the time they finally passed the border, everyone was exhausted.
In front of them was four more hours of hiking before they would reach safety. The terrain was very tough, and Danial passed out in the middle of the journey.
“I felt like something hit me on the back of my head. But nothing actually hit me, I just banged my head on the ground when I fell. I was having sweet dreams when they woke me up by pouring water on me and slapping my face.
“I woke up but could not move my body at all. There was still some more impassable path ahead of us. I told them I couldn’t keep going and it didn’t matter anymore if I died. But a Kurd man lifted me up and carried me on his back for half an hour until we reached our destination.”
No Safety, but No Regrets
The trafficker provided them with fake ID cards and sent them on their way to Ankara. They bought their own bus tickets and boarded the bus. Danial did not let go of his backpack for the entire journey, as it contained a Turkmen costume that he loved dearly.
“I grew up with these clothes,” he says. “I have always worked and made my own money since childhood. In Turkey I worked so much I got cuts and blisters on my feet. Here asylum-seekers don’t have a permit to work, so we have to get jobs in the black market.”
He says he does not regret leaving Iran since he had no other option.
“Even when I was in the middle of the shootings on the border, I just wanted to go back to Iran and try another way. I saw death in front of my eyes. People got shot and dropped down.
“I also experienced death during my time in solitary confinement when they staged my execution. They put a rope around my neck and hung me for three seconds to get my Twitter and Facebook passwords. They hung an 18-year-old boy for three seconds for nothing. I gave them my passwords.
“Now I’m left with no family and no feeling of safety, but I’m not remorseful.”
In Turkey, Danial has officially registered Tuhra as the first human rights organization for Turkmen people. He says it does not matter what country he goes to. He just needs a passport so he can attend human rights meetings across the world and be the voice of his people.
“I want to fundraise for a documentary. I have prepared a list of Turkmen people who were executed. The only thing I need is a passport.”
At the end of our conversation, Danial’s sister calls. She is becoming a bride today. They both break down in tears, upset that he can only experience her wedding day through a glass screen.
Danial passes me the phone and I congratulate her. “Thank you,” she says. “I wish Danial was here now. I miss him very much.”