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Families of Iran's detained protesters under pressure

Shabnam von Hein
November 4, 2022

Thousands of Iranians taking part in the ongoing mass anti-regime protests have been arrested. In many cases, families and friends don't even know where the detainees are being held.

A group of Iranian anti-riot police wearing helmets and holding batons gather on the street
Human rights group estimate that Iranian authorities have detained over 10,000 protesters so farImage: SalamPix/ABACA/picture alliance

The ongoing nationwide anti-government demonstrations pose one of the biggest challenges to Iran's clerical regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

To quell the protests, authorities have been widening the crackdown, deploying security forces at protests and making arrests of a wide range of Iranians — from lawyers and doctors to rappers.

Relatives of the imprisoned demonstrators are reluctant to talk to foreign media. Speaking to DW on condition of anonymity, some said they don't talk to journalists for fear of being accused by the Iranian government of acting as "spies" and passing on information to foreigners.

"Relatives are under enormous psychological pressure. They fear for the lives of their relatives, as well as their own lives," Masoud Kazemi, a journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Iranian political magazine Seda ye Parsi, told DW.

"Many families don't even know where to look for their arrested children. They line up outside the prisons every day and are completely desperate," he added.

Kazemi, who has been living in Turkey for more than a year, is no longer allowed to work as a journalist in Iran.

Kazemi was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2019, following his reporting of corruption in the nation's Interior Ministry. He was in prison at a time when the country was roiled by mass protests triggered by a spike in fuel prices.

"I myself witnessed how badly the demonstrators detained at the time [in 2019] — often very young people — were treated," he said.

"Many of them were taken away by plainclothes security personnel and temporarily held in unknown places, severely beaten and interrogated," the journalist recalled. "Under this pressure, many testified against themselves on camera, without thinking that these statements could later be used against them."

No clarity on how many detained and where

In the Iranian capital Tehran alone, some 1,000 protesters have so far been charged during the current protests.

"Those involved in the recent demonstrations committed sabotage," the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported in late October, citing the chief justice of Tehran province.

Allegations against the protesters also include attacking or killing security forces, damaging public property, as well as "spreading corruption on Earth" — a charge, if resulting in conviction, can lead to the death penalty.

The trials are expected to be held in public and begin this week. It is not clear how many people in total have been arrested by Iranian authorities in recent weeks and where they are being held. Several lists are being circulated on the internet, with details of detained persons. Updates are made almost daily. On Wednesday, for instance, 25 names were added to a list, noting that the whereabouts of some of them were unknown.

Concern about treatment of detained protesters

Human rights organizations say prisons in the country are already overcrowded and that many detainees are being temporarily taken to detention camps run by the Ministry of Intelligence. They estimate that Iranian authorities have so far detained over 10,000 protesters.

At least 270 people have been killed in the protests since they began in mid-September following the death of a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, Jina Mahsa Amini, in the custody of the country's so-called morality police.

The UN human rights office has also voiced concern about Iran's treatment of detained protesters. "We've seen a lot of ill-treatment... but also harassment of the families of protesters," Ravina Shamdasani, the agency's spokesperson, said in Geneva in late October, citing multiple sources.

"Of particular concern is information that authorities have been moving injured protesters from hospitals to detention facilities and refusing to release the bodies of those killed to their families," she added.

Pressure on relatives and friends

"Protesters are not arrested; they are deliberately made to disappear to create fear and panic in society," Iranian human rights lawyer Saeid Dehghan, who has been living in Canada for the past few months, told DW. 

Desperate Iranian families looking for their children continue to contact him for advice and help.

There are hardly any independent lawyers left in Iran who stand up for their clients without fear of becoming victims of persecution and political prisoners themselves.

"The rule of law no longer has any meaning," Dehgan said, pointing out that according to the Islamic Republic's penal code, authorities must inform the families of the detainees within 24 hours of their arrest about where they are being held and the reasons for their detention.

"The government is not even abiding by the laws enacted by itself," he said.

For the release of detained protesters, relatives must post bail, often amounting to the equivalent of several thousand euros.

Many families have had to turn to their relatives and friends to raise this money, said Dehghan, adding, "in this manner, the regime puts enormous pressure on the relatives and friends of the protesting people. It lets this pressure hover over their heads like 'the Sword of Damocles.'"

This article was originally written in German.