September 2, 2021
“The party was in Anahita Hall, on the Kermanshah-Kamyaran highway. There were about 60 of us there. It was about 10 pm when several plainclothes officers stormed the hall and forced us to hand over our cellphones, camcorders, and even the birthday presents. Then they filmed all the guests. A man who called Haji began to divide up the guests: those who had tattoos, those who were Sunnis, Yarsanis and, in general, non-Shiite Muslims, the host, non-Kermanshah residents, trans people, and the people who had resisted handing over their mobile phones, were all arrested.”
Pashko Zandi is an LGBT+ rights activist from Kurdistan. On October 9, 2013, he was arrested by the IRGC along with 17 of his friends at a birthday party in Kermanshah province on the flimsy charge of “promoting homosexuality”. For the past week it’s been all he can think about after a shocking series of dispatches from Evin Prison made headlines around the world.
In late August, a cyber-activist group calling itself Edaalat-e Ali (Ali’s Justice) hacked into Evin Prison’s CCTV system and published never-before-seen footage from inside Iran’s most notorious jail. Amongst other things, it evidenced the existence of a secret space in Evin being used to house LBGT+ Iranians.
Back in June, IranWire had revealed that in March 2020, all known gay and trans convicts had been rounded up and transferred from Evin’s already-bleak Ward 240 to a hidden basement in Ward One. Formerly only used for overflow prisoners and described as the “land of the forgotten”, the basement has no amenities, no outdoor space for exercise and no store – just an abundance of cameras, around three per detainee.
One of Edaalat-e Ali’s releases included a video purporting to have come from this desolate underground space. The chilling five-minute clip shows a mixed group of male and female prisoners in yellow uniforms, some with topknots and bleached blond hair, huddled on the floor of a filthy, windowless room. A fight then breaks out between two of the inmates in the middle of the claustrophobic space.
The release has brought back awful memories for people like Pashko Zandi. That night in 2013, he told IranWire, he and his fellow detainees were blindfolded and taken by minibus to an unknown location. With the silence of the night broken only by the sound of dogs, they guessed they were somewhere well outside of Kermanshah city. Hanging onto one another’s clothing, they got out of the bus, while their captors kicked them and shouted obscenities.
“We entered a hall,” Zandi remembers, “and were asked to stand in front of the wall. We were told to undress and put uniforms that were pink. Many of my friends were embarrassed at being naked in front of others, but no one paid attention to what they said. Among us was a 15-year-old who had been arrested for improper clothing. She was scared, and cried, and pleaded with them, saying she had to go to school tomorrow. But no one listened to her.”
Those who resisted were punched, kicked and insulted. All those present, Zandi says, were stunned; they had no idea why they had been detained, nor what they had done to deserve such violence and humiliation from strangers.
“We were divided into four groups,” he says. “Each group was placed in a separate cell: a small room with a large lamp and two cameras above our heads. We were taken to the interrogation room every hour. We were constantly asked to admit that we were members of a gang promoting homosexuality and satanism; if we didn’t, we’d be electrocuted, punched and kicked. Amid the beatings and threats, we each signed a paper; we didn’t know what was written on it. They made us hold up numbers and took pictures of us.”
Pashko Zandi was kept at the intelligence detention center for two days. From there, he and two others were taken back toward the city center, again with their eyes covered, and released with the warning not to look back. “After disembarking, we realized we were in the Kermanshah oil field,” he said. “From that night on, we waited every moment for them to come for us. And so it was. Other people who hadn’t been detained that night were arrested later, in their own homes, with their personal computers.”
For a long time, Zandi did not go to Kermanshah or Sanandaj in fear of his life. His cellphone had also been confiscated. Later he heard from other friends who had been in custody. Some of them had been held for weeks by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps before being sent to Diesel Abad Prison west of Kermanshah, where they were subjected to severe mental and physical torture. The guards had shaved their heads and constantly threatened them with rape, and with being placed among Iran’s most dangerous criminals.
With wrenching sadness, Pashko Zandi remembers his friend Shervin, who died as a result of his incarceration. “Shervin was the host of the party. He was detained for a long time, held alone in a cell. He lost consciousness several times but no one paid attention to his worsening condition and the doctor did not come to visit him.
“There was a rope hanging in his cell. They kept telling him they would hang him with it. He was constantly monitored and followed after his release. The families of most of those who were held for a long time found out what had happened, and many were disowned by their parents. Shervin was one of them. This mental and physical torture left him unable to cope. He ended his life by eating rice pills.”
Shervin, Pashko Zandi says, was not the only person who killed himself after the ordeal. The harm some of the birthday guests endured was grave. Many of them, especially the transgender ones, were physically assaulted by prison guards. In addition to being tortured with cables, electric shocks and kicks and slaps, they endured sexual, ethnic and religious slurs.
“Because I was a Sunni Kurd, for instance, they insulted me as a Kurd and a Sunni,” says Zandi. “Another of the detainees was a Turk from Urmia, and he was constantly abused. They told trans people: ‘You should be ashamed of yourselves for your appearance. Are you a man or not? You’ll learn when we sent you to Diesel Abad Prison and you’re raped by criminals!”
Officially according to the Islamic Penal Code, being transgender is not a crime. But trans Iranians face a welter of social, cultural and even legal obstacles in daily life, and are often treated with extreme cruelty. Homosexuality, however, is illegal and carries heavy penalties ranging from flogging to the death sentence. People like Paskho Zandi are rounded up and brutalized in Iran every year. Today, an untold number are languishing as political prisoners in the basement of Evin.