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Marina Nemat
Marina Nemat. Photo by Frank Cunha

Prisoners in Tehran

Treatment of political detainees hasn’t changed – but technology offers hope

It has been about three years since I stopped paying attention to what Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says. If I see him on TV, I change the channel. I don’t even read the Farsi jokes about him that regularly appear in my email box. To me, he is irrelevant. Another puppet in a line of puppets in the hands of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. And while Iranian politicians spout propaganda and threaten to wipe this and that country off the map, they order the torture, rape and murder of their own young citizens in the prisons of the Islamic Republic. I was arrested in Tehran in 1982 at the age of 16 and spent more than two years suspended between life and death in Evin prison. (I had asked the calculus teacher to teach calculus instead of propaganda, written articles against the government in my school newspaper and attended protest rallies.) When it comes to the treatment of political prisoners, nothing much has changed in that country since then.

The Iranian regime has been in power for more than 30 years, violently and constantly silencing any form of dissidence. In the early ’80s, thousands of young Iranians – mostly teenagers – were imprisoned after a wave of mass arrests. During those days, a court consisted of a Sharia judge sitting in a small room, passing verdicts. A trial usually took about two to five minutes. There were no defence lawyers, and, in many cases, even the accused was not present at his or her own so-called trial. Thousands of prisoners were branded as anti-revolutionaries and were executed. There were rumours that young girls were raped before execution so that they would not go to heaven. Things are not any better today.

Even here in the West, it is difficult for victims of rape to step forward and go public. In a country such as Iran if a woman is raped, she could easily be blamed for it. At the age of 17, I was married off to one of my interrogators in prison. This didn’t mean that I was released, but I was forced to spend nights with him in a solitary cell in the 209 section of Evin. I did not talk about my experience until about nine years ago when the past began to catch up with me. After my release, the first night I was home, I ate dinner with my parents and listened to them talk about the weather. They wanted the past to be forgotten. Not that I wanted them to ask me how I had been tortured and raped, but it would have been nice if they had told me that when I was ready to talk, they would be there to listen. But this never came.

After my book, Prisoner of Tehran (Viking Canada, 2007), was published, a few Iranians called me a liar, a traitor and a whore. A few others said that I had exaggerated and that it could not have been so bad in Evin. I had brought up issues that were considered unspeakable by many, and I had to pay for my bold¬ness. But things began to change after the 2009 unrest that followed Iran’s presidential election. Unlike in the ’80s, history was being recorded much more easily. Cellphone cameras documented brutalities on the streets of Tehran, and the world watched as an innocent young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan bled to death on a sidewalk. Iran has had many Nedas who were killed on the streets or in prisons. Some of them were my friends. But their faces never appeared on the front page of newspapers. It was only after Ayatollah Karroubi, a reformist political candidate, announced that young prisoners had been raped and abused in prisons that many Iranians began asking me about my dark days in Evin. Well, late is better than never.

Iran has been caught in a terrible cycle of revenge, torture, intolerance and hatred for many years. The only way for us to break free from it is to understand and study our past and present with an open mind. Survivors need to be encouraged to speak out. Throughout history, victims have turned into torturers and torturers into victims. Enough is enough.

Marina Nemat earned a certificate in creative writing in 2007 from U of T’s School of Continuing Studies.

U of T Magazine invites alumni to share interesting opinions or unusual experiences. Contact Stacey Gibson at for more information about contributing.

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