By Shima Shahrabi
August 10, 2020
Kianoosh Sanjari, a journalist and human rights activist who is currently on medical leave from prison, described in a series of tweets the bitter and painful experience of being transferred from his prison cell to Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital (Razi Psychiatric Center).
Sanjari’s tweets began by explaining that he was sent to a medical center with two soldiers in early 2019. He did not know that he was being transferred to Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital until, when already en route, he saw the sign of the hospital. According to the journalist, a drug was injected to him upon his arrival, which suddenly paralyzed him: “At the beginning, a man in a nursing gown put me to bed and injected me with an unknown drug. I was fainting. My jaw dropped. I wanted to ask what are you doing. But my mouth was dry. Shortly afterwards, I noticed that I was lying on a bed in a five-person room, with my right hand and left foot chained to the bed. I was paralyzed for 24 hours. The next day I wanted to talk to the nurse, but my tongue would not move.”
This series of tweets has once again drawn attention and provoked questions over the issue of torture in Iranian prisons. Sanjari wrote that he had been tied to a bed, his hands and feet handcuffed to the bedposts for days, and that the chains were not removed from his legs even when he went to the bathroom.
But do doctors and nurses in hospitals and medical centers truly collaborate with security agencies? What was the drug that was injected into Kianoosh Sanjari and what have been its side effects?
A psychiatrist living in Tehran, who used to work at Roozbeh Psychiatric Center, believes that ordinary doctors in medical centers do not collaborate with security agencies.
“We, ordinary doctors have nothing to do with this,” the psychiatrist told IranWire. “But in any case, I think in recent years the security forces have trained doctors to meet their demands,” the psychiatrist, who has witnessed several prisoners being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, added. “For example, not every doctor can become an employee of the Prisons Organization or enter the Ministry of Defense and work there. The doctors of these centers are usually employees of these institutions.”
The psychiatrist believes that at each univeristy entrance exam, several people enter the medical courses at the request of the security and judicial institutions: “After all, they need a doctor to cut off hands or, as they say, execute Islamic rulings.”
The psychiatrist also spoke about the drug injected in to Kianoosh Sanjari: “According to what Mr. Sanjari said about the side effects of this drug, which was injected upon his arrival, it was probably a dose of haloperidol,” an anti-depressant used to treat psychotic conditions.
According to the psychiatrist, “Usually, some psychiatric patients resist entering medical centers, and in some cases behave aggressively. This drug is used to control the patient’s resistance and sense of panic, but if the patient does not resist, it is not necessary to inject this drug.”
This is not the first time a political prisoner has been transferred to a psychiatric hospital. The mother of Hengameh Shahidi, an imprisoned journalist, announced on her Instagram on January 1, 2020, that her daughter had been transferred to Aminabad Psychiatric Center: “Today, Wednesday 1 January 2020, Hengameh called from prison, after one week of not calling. She reported about the heinous and criminal act of four hospital officers to transfer her to Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital instead of Taleghani Hospital.” One day after the publication of this Instagram post, Hengameh Shahidi published an audio file addressed to Ebrahim Raisi, head of the judiciary, and narrated what happened to her.
Hengameh Shahidi’s narrative about being transferred to Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital is not unlike Kianoosh Sanjari’s story. She specifically mentions the use of a haloperidol injection upon entering the psychiatric center: “There, when four male hospital staff members met my resistance and screams, they grabbed my limbs and dragged me to the ground until they decided to inject me with the psychedelic haloperidol substance, which anesthetized me and prevented me from resisting, and hospitalized me for two month without visits or outside contact. Due to my heart condition, I was on the brink of a cardiac arrest, with the shock from their behavior.”
Another psychiatrist from Tehran told IranWire: “Haloperidol is not a psychoactive substance, it falls into the category of antipsychotics. It’s used to treat acute mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, uncontrollable mental disorders, or severe restlessness, and is commonly used as an injection for patients who are resistant to taking the pill and is given as an intramuscular injection for rapid treatment results.”
According to this doctor, intramuscular injection causes the drug to be released slowly in the patient’s body, and therefore the side effects of the drug, such as drowsiness, dry mouth, and so on, can last for hours and days: “Probably a haloperidol injection, also known as Haldol, may have been injected in to Kianoosh Sanjari, and the feeling of sudden paralysis is one of the side effects of this drug.”
But Hengameh Shahidi and Kianoosh Sanjari are not the only political prisoner to be transferred to a psychiatric center. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British woman detained in Iran since 2016, was admitted to the psychiatric ward of Imam Khomeini Hospital for some time. Nazanin’s family was not allowed to visit her during her hospital stay.
Hashem Khastar, a teacher and a teachers’ union activist, is one of those who was taken by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps security forces and was hospitalized in Sina Psychiatric Hospital in Mashhad. He said that, from the beginning of his hospitalization, he had been beaten on the pretext of mental problems and that the hospital nurses had injected him with drugs.
The wife of Mohammad Ali Babapour, a police university lecturer who was sentenced to ten years in prison on allegations of collaborating with hostile states, told IranWire last year that the prisoner had been transferred to a psychiatric hospital.
According to Babapour’s wife, Babapour was depressed and was taking medication under the supervision of a doctor: “When he was arrested, he no longer had any medication to take. Mohammad Ali’s sister, who was in Tehran, went to Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court several times to show them his medical file, until she was finally able to see Judge Salavati for a few minutes; but I do not know whether the judge finally accepted his illness or not. In the end, my husband was transferred to Aminabad [Psychiatric] Hospital, which I wish had not happened. When he returned, he was taking pills that made him sleep for hours.”
Earlier, political prisoners had reported being forced to take pills in prison. Niloufar Bayani, an imprisoned environmental activist, recently wrote a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, in protest at the torture she has experienced in prison. In part, she wrote that her interrogators “threatened to inject paralyzing drugs and air injections by rolling up their sleeves.”
The psychiatrist in Tehran who spoke to IranWire, like his colleague, believes that not every doctor and nurse will comply with the demands of the security agencies: “Asking doctors and nurses who are not trusted by the security forces, despite being under pressure and threats, might be more dangerous and risky.” According to this doctor, they have an easier way and can use doctors who are trained in government centers: “As it seems, this is what they doe.”
Doctors who leave Baqiyatollah University or Shahed University have to work for the authorities for a long time, this doctor said, per a commitment they make to the authorities at the beginning of their studies.
”After the university entrance exam, these universities accept students according to their grade and the vetting process, and the student also commits to serve in these centers for some time at the end of the education,” the doctor said. “During their studies and service in these centers, doctors will be supervised and those who are closer to them intellectually and ideologically can be offered jobs in security institutions.”
The Baqiyatollah University of Medical Sciences is one of the educational centers under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards, and Shahed University is also under the supervision of the Martyrs and Veterans Affairs Foundation, a group linked to Iran’s security forces and hardline factions.
The doctor also emphasized that many prison doctors are currently serving their obligatory military service: “These doctors will meet the same fate as Ramin Pourandarjani if they speak out.”
Ramin Pourandarjani was a doctor of the police force who visited patients at Kahrizak Detention Center several times during the events of widespread 2009 protests that followed Iran’s disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.
Torture and sub-standard conditions at the detention center resulted in the deaths of Amir Javadifar, Mohammad Kamrani, and Mohsen Rouhalamini, all of whom were detained during the protests. The detention center was closed by order of the Supreme Leader. Pourandarjani died a few months after appearing in court in Kahrizak November 2009 – a few months after the protests. The cause of his death was a heart attack while sleeping during a shift at the police station though his family and friends question whether the official account is true. Pourandarjani had already told his close friends about what he had seen in Kahrizak Detention Center.