By Havari Yousefi
September 29, 2021
The names and identities of key members of an alleged rape gang in Sardasht, West Azerbaijan province, were published online midway through last week. The event sent shockwaves through the community and was widely reported on by civil and human rights activists. Iranian women and girls held a protest in the city’s Sarcheshmeh Square on Saturday night, defying warnings from Sardasht Prosecutor’s Office, and demanding the perpetrators face justice.
The source of the information was Nazila Afkhami, an Iranian-born women’s rights advocate now based in Switzerland. In an interview with IranWire, Afkhami said she had received threats toward herself and her family since going public – but had also come under pressure from Sardasht intelligence agents.
“The men who can kill women are like Reza Sur Kulehsi. They carry out all sorts of indecent acts, and they also kill. Women of Kurdistan, and especially the women of Sardasht, raise your voices and don’t allow yourselves to be killed by these people. He [Reza Sur] killed his sister and raped a teenage girl. Why do these people get so zealous about their wives and mothers, but not about other people’s daughters?
“Break the silence.”
On Tuesday, September 21, Nazila Afkhami posted the above text on her personal Instagram together with a picture of a man she identified as the head of a rape gang in Sardasht, the capital of West Azerbaijan province, which has a large Kurdish population. Women and girls in the city, she said, had since contacted her in large numbers to share their harrowing stories of treatment by the gang, under their real names.
Not all of the reactions were positive, though. Two days after Afkhami’s revelations, her father’s house in Sardasht was attacked by unknown assailants carrying grenades. “Fortunately no one was injured,” she told IranWire, “but my father’s house was severely damaged. He complained to Sardasht Intelligence Office but as yet, no-one has been arrested.”
Instead of investigating the crime properly, local intelligence agents tried to prevent Afkhami and other activists from publishing further information about the gang. “Yesterday, the intelligence service called my family and asked them to get me to stop,” Afkhami said. “And since last Thursday, alongside the attack on my father’s house, unknown individuals have been sending me repeated, threatening messages from various Instagram accounts. They contact me via different numbers, expressing remorse and asking me for the name of the person who gave me this information. They’ve threatened to attack my family again.”
So numerous and persistent are the messages, she says, it feels like a co-ordinated campaign. Members of Reza Sur’s family have also attended her family home on a daily basis, telling them to “keep quiet” lest the situation end in bloodshed. Afkhami has already contacted the police herself, but feels she has no option but to continue her work.
Unmasking a Criminal Gang in Sardasht
“In mid- September 2021,” Afkhami told IranWire, “an Instagram follower I hadn’t spoken to before sent me a message about a person named Reza Sur. He suffers from a chronic illness and had raped a teenage girl in Sardasht about four months ago, threatening her at gunpoint and with a knife.”
Both Reza Sur and Ali Abtin, another alleged member of the same gang, were arrested in spring 2021 after one teenage victim’s family complained. They and a third man, known as Shooresh, are understood to be the ringleaders of a notorious rape gang that has been targeting women in the capital of West Azerbaijan for the past 15 years.
Four months since the arrests, however, the case against Reza Sur and Abtin seems to have gone cold. Many women who spoke to Afkhami were too afraid to testify about what had happened to them. But in addition, Afkhami said, Reza Sur is both wealthy and well-connected, and “some citizens of Sardasht say he has [relationships] with police commanders and security officials, who forced many of the victims and their families to remain silent. In the course of our investigation, we also found out that Reza Sur had brutally murdered his sister Sharafat in front of her son a few years ago for reasons of ‘honor’, and went unpunished.”
In the absence of decisive action by the security agencies – the opposite, in fact – Afkhami says she considers it vital for activists to keep disclosing rape cases and defending the victims in place of the authorities. “Naming the individuals and groups that target women, even where the judiciary, law enforcement and security institutions are indifferent, is integral to a healthy civil society. Mass protests begin with a spark, from a living and active individual or group.”