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Nobel laureate Narges Mohammadi: Documenting Iran's torture

October 6, 2023

Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi's book and documentary about the plight of imprisoned activists in Iran sheds light on human rights abuses suffered in the Islamic Republic.

Narges Mohammadi with the cover of a book with title, 'White Torture,' in Persian.
Narges Mohammadi's book 'White Torture' provided inspiration for the documentaryImage: DW

"In Iran, a solitary cell is not like the isolation in Western prisons," explained Taghi Rahmani.

And Rahmani would know more than most. He is "Iran's most frequently jailed journalist," according to advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. 

"In a solitary cell in Iran, you are locked up and have no communication or facilities. Not a meeting, not a book, not an essay [...] with a blindfold and you only hear sounds," Rahmani told DW at a recent screening of the film "White Torture," which exposes the psychological torture methods imposed on political activists imprisoned in the Islamic Republic.  

Documenting Iran's psychological torture

Rahmani's wife and fellow activist Narges Mohammadi, who has won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for "her fight against the oppression of women in Iran" as stated by the Nobel committee on October 6, has also endured several spells in prison over the last 25 years. She is currently behind bars, due to Iran's dim view of being scrutinized over its human rights record.

She was first imprisoned for a year in 1998 for criticizing the Iranian government, and has been fighting against the regime ever since. 

After other prison terms, Mohammadi, the vice president of the banned organization Defenders of Human Rights Center was sentenced in May 2016 to 16 years behind bars for establishing "a human rights movement that campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty."

Despite the regime's best efforts, Mohammadi's voice could not be silenced. She began to document the suffering of fellow prisoners, eventually putting a series of interviews into the book "White Torture." 

Iran tightens control of women's dress code

The documentary of the same name now sheds light on the harrowing treatment of political prisoners in solitary confinement.

White torture refers to a type of psychological torture technique that is used in Iran, in which prisoners are kept isolated for prolonged, indefinite periods of time, in a cell where everything is completely white.

Film 'very difficult to watch'

The screening of "White Torture" in Berlin, organized by human rights group Hawar, brought together rights advocates, former political prisoners and relatives of dual-national inmates currently imprisoned in Iran.

Mariam Claren, daughter of political prisoner Nahid Taghavi, said the film was "very difficult to watch" because of the "torture that can be seen." As Claren highlighted, the Iranian authorities don't want you to watch it, as "White Torture" brings to light exactly what "cannot be seen."

Brutal cost of protest in Iran

In fact, some accounts were too harrowing to be shown. "Solitary confinement is really a painful situation," said documentary creator Gelareh Kakavand. "Behind the scenes of this documentary, there were many emotions in the interviews that could not be recorded. I hope that the audience will get close to those feelings after watching this movie."

Covert operation to film documentary

Much of the filming for the documentary was done in the interim periods between  Mohammadi's penultimate and current spells behind bars. It was by no means an easy task, with the filmmakers undertaking a covert operation to evade authorities.

"The conditions of making the film were difficult," said filmmaker Vahid Zarezadeh, who was forced to flee Iran after being interrogated and threatened for the work highlighting conditions in the country's prisons. 

"In the first minutes of the film, the audience sees that one of the agents of the Ministry of Information called Narges Mohammadi. We went unannounced to get some interviews. The whole group did not go to the filming location together. For example, Narges went separately, and we went separately. Even Narges rode a motorcycle so that the pursuers would lose her."

Back in prison

Mohammadi's plight continues, back behind bars for a fifth time since a first arrest in 1998. Her 2022 trial lasted only five minutes, leading to a sentence of eight years in prison and 70 lashes.

In December 2022, amid the protests triggered by the death in custody of Jina Mahsa Amini, Mohammadi, in a report which was published by the BBC, detailed the sexual and physical abuse of detained women.

In January 2023, she gave a harrowing account from prison which detailed the condition of the women in Evin Prison, the primary site for the housing of Iran's political prisoners since 1972. Her account included a list of 58 prisoners and the interrogation process and tortures they have gone through.

This article was first published on September 29, 2023 and was updated on October 6 with the news of Narges Mohammadi's win of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Interviews for this article were conducted by DW's Persian department.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

John Silk Editor and writer for English news, as well as the Culture and Asia Desks.@JSilk